United Airlines Narrowly Avoids Pilot Strike?

United Airlines pilots avoided a strike by agreeing to a raise ahead of schedule, but the two sides are still negotiating a long-term deal

By Charlene Badasie | Published

United Airlines is giving pilots a 5% pay increase months ahead of schedule as the airline and union struggle to agree on a new contract. During the pandemic, the carrier promised to boost pay once it started earning consistent profits again. This provision was included in a broader agreement between the airline and the Air Line Pilots Association to prevent furloughs at a time in 2020 when the company was losing money.

As such, United Airlines and the union, which represents the carrier’s 13,000 pilots, agreed to offer employees a round of buyouts as it scrambled to reduce costs. In exchange, the airline said it would raise its pilots’ hourly pay once it returned to a pretax margin of 5% for 12 months. They also agreed to job and pay protections, CNBC reports.

Two years later, United Airlines cited its return to profitability and positive outlook for introducing the raises earlier than expected. Although the company still lost money in the first nine months of 2022, the carrier reported a pretax margin of 9% in the last quarter. It also expects a very profitable end to the year, as people book flights for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Speaking about the pay raises, United Airlines Senior Vice President of Flight Operations Bryan Quigley told pilots the raises with take effect during the December bid month. “This is a show of good faith and a down payment on a market-based, industry-leading labor agreement,” he said in a note to employees. He added that the move is also a recognition of the role pilots played in helping the airline to survive and recover from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, United Airlines pilots overwhelmingly voted against a proposed agreement that would have increased pay by approximately 15% over 18 months. The union told CNBC the deal fell short of the industry-leading contract pilots have earned and deserved after leading the airline through the pandemic and back to profitability. Close to 10,000 of the carrier’s pilots participated, with 94% voting it down.

“Accelerating our raise does not change the fact we still need a contract that fully recognizes the contributions we make every day to the success of our airline,” Air Line Pilots Association said to members last week. The unions also said it would organize informational pickets to encourage the company to resume talks as they are unhappy with management’s wait-and-see approach to negotiations.

As such, United Airlines pilots plan to picket outside the company’s flight training center in Denver on November 15th. For its part, United Airlines said they are already working with the Air Line Pilots Association on a new, industry-leading agreement that is expected to include improved pay rates and other enhancements.

But it’s not just United Airlines that is struggling to meet demands for new pilot contracts. Across the industry, employees want more money and better scheduling as airlines become profitable following the pandemic slump which lasted more than two years. Delta Air Lines pilots also voted to authorize a strike if the carrier and union can’t agree on a new contract.