My own union job comes to an end

Philip Greenspun's Weblog 2012-09-12

Coincidentally, at the same time that the Chicago teacher’s union was going out on strike, my own union job came to an end (official termination letter). In 2008, I accepted a job at Comair, a regional airline that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta and that flies passengers as “Delta Connection”. My job included a membership in the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), one of the most successful unions other than those representing government workers (see “Unions and Airlines” for why).

Comair’s union agreement was more favorable to workers than the contracts at regional airline competitors, to the point that it cost Delta less to pay independent regional airlines to fly Delta Connection flights than to use its own in-house regional airline. Most of the airplanes themselves are owned either by Delta or by a leasing company, so the assets of a regional airline are its FAA air carrier certificate and a group of employees.

Due to the fact that Comair had shrunk so much since the Collapse of 2008, coupled with union agreements that the newest workers be laid off first (I was furloughed in the fall of 2008) and that the newest workers be paid the least, Comair had a much higher than average cost workforce. The company was in the middle of contract negotiations with pilots when a decision was made to shut the whole thing down.

The effect of the shutdown is that pilots who had formerly been on 10-year pay at Comair, perhaps earning $40,000 per year, will now be applying for jobs at 1-year pay ($20,000 per year) at another regional airline. Unlike the Chicago teachers, Comair pilots were not entitled to a defined benefit pension and therefore the airline industry will not realize any pension savings by sending all of these folks to another carrier with their 401k plans intact. It would have been a lot less turmoil if the airline and pilots could have agreed that the pay scale could be revamped so that Comair’s labor costs were about the same as competitors, but psychologically it was apparently easier for all to pretend that somehow there was a defect in the Comair corporate shell and that the world would be a better place if everyone moved to work for a different corporation with a different FAA air carrier certificate. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of people will have to move from their northern Kentucky homes in order to find work (Comair headquarters is at the Cincinnati airport and no other airlines are based at CVG).

So I am bidding farewell to this job and my life as a union worker. I am grateful to the Comair dispatch and scheduling team. Pilots are expected to live as nomads but these folks reasonably expected to go to work every day in Comair’s glass corporate headquarters (“the Kremlin” and home to those with “ten pound heads” according to my “basic indoctrination” trainer, Mark Martin). It is not pleasant to get a phone call at 4:45 am in a Hilton Garden Inn near the Baltimore airport, but the schedulers did their best when asking me to adapt to the absurd lifestyle of a junior pilot. The dispatchers did a great job calculating our fuel requirements and keeping us informed regarding the weather. I’m also grateful to the Comair simulator training team and the check airmen that flew with me during my “initial operating experience” (IOE). It takes a lot of courage to watch someone who has previously flown slow four-seat airplanes and helicopters try to land, for the first time and with 50 passengers in back, a jet weighing 47,000 lbs. It did not help that the Canadair Regional Jets we flew had no leading-edge devices (“slats”) and therefore had to be pointed nose-down at the runway for a blistering final approach speed of 170 mph (substantially faster than a Boeing 737 for example). Finally, I am grateful to the flight attendants with whom I flew. The toughest job at the airline is definitely to be alone in the inadequately air conditioned back with 50 passengers complaining about their kids’ peanut allergies and wondering why we were parked on a taxiway for two or three hours at JFK or DCA.