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The latest workers calling for a better quality of life: airline pilots

United Airlines pilots participate in a picket line at Washington Dulles International Airport on May 12, 2023. Ahead of a busy summer travel season, they're asking for higher wages and also quality of life improvements.
Win McNamee
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Getty Images
United Airlines pilots participate in a picket line at Washington Dulles International Airport on May 12, 2023. Ahead of a busy summer travel season, they're asking for higher wages and also quality of life improvements.

In the departures hall of Washington Dulles International Airport, hundreds of uniformed United Airlines pilots filed silently past travelers pulling suitcases and children toward the check-in kiosks.

Faces stoic, they carried signs with messages such as "Fix our schedules!" and "Future pilots are watching."

Such protests have been staged at airports all across the country in recent weeks, as United, American and Southwest airlines have all been engaged in contract talks. Quality of life issues have taken center stage.

Finding work life balance in a job that can't be done remotely

Negotiations actually began in 2019, but the pandemic delayed any increase in pay for years. Then, Delta pilots secured a 34% raise on March 1 and United and American have said they will match that.

What remains unsolved is a question so many workers have asked themselves since the coronavirus upended every job in the country: How do I better balance my work with my life?

As a 737 captain for United Airlines, Alex Cole is away from home roughly 15 days a month. He's missed family birthdays and celebrated Christmas on dates other than Dec. 25.

"These are special moments that you don't get back," he says.

Of course, one could argue that this is the life you choose when you become a pilot. It's part of why flying for the major airlines pays well.

But Captain Dennis Tajer, a 30-year veteran of American Airlines and spokesman for the union representing 15,000 pilots at American, says a pilot shortage has made things worse.

"I don't know what's going to happen this summer," said Tajer at a May 1 protest at Chicago O'Hare airport.

American Airlines pilots picket outside Chicago O'Hare airport on May 1, 2023, after voting to authorize a strike. They are now close to a deal that would give them substantial raises and quality of life improvements.
David Schaper / NPR
/
NPR
American Airlines pilots picket outside Chicago O'Hare airport on May 1, 2023, after voting to authorize a strike. They are now close to a deal that would give them substantial raises and quality of life improvements.

Early in the pandemic, thousands of pilots were offered early retirement. Then, to the airlines' great surprise, travel came roaring back.

Since then, they've been hiring furiously, but pilot training is a slow, lengthy process. There aren't actually enough pilots to train newcomers, because they're needed in the skies.

For pilots, it's all about scheduling

To meet demand, American is giving pilots tighter schedules, less buffer time around flights and more nights away from home, Tajer said.

Now, there are fewer one and two-day trips, as four and five-day stints have become the norm.

"Not only does that destroy our family life, but when a trip falls apart on day one, that leaves all that extra flying out there to be picked up somehow," he said.

Here's a scenario: A storm delay causes a flight crew to "time out." Airlines do have reserve pilots who can come in and take over the rest of the trip. But pilots at different airlines have said they are also seeing more involuntary reassignments. Someone may be finishing a three-day trip and instead of going home, they're redirected onto yet another flight to cover for that timed out crew.

Pilots want limits on such reassignments, and incentives along with better scheduling systems for those who want to jump in at the last minute and pick up extra flying time.

Airline management has acknowledged that both workers and customers have been through a lot lately, as demand for travel has outstripped supply.

"What's called irregular operations are going to happen. I think it's the extent that it's happened," says Jerry Glass of FH Solutions Group, who has represented airlines in negotiations for 40 years, although he's not involved in the current pilot talks.

Glass says the pilot shortage isn't the only challenge airlines are facing. More frequent bad weather is also causing havoc.

Regardless, he is advising companies to reassess how they schedule workers or else risk problems finding talent.

"You've probably heard the expression 'Time is the new money.' For this generation of workers that's coming into the workforce — their quality of life is very important to them," says Glass.

"Much more so than my generation where, you know, if you have to work, you work."

What the pilot talks mean for the flying public

So, should you be worried about your summer travel? Short answer: probably not.

Earlier this spring, pilots at American and Southwest voted to approve strikes. But American has just reached a preliminary agreement with its pilots, so a deal appears close. Also, federal law requires mediation before pilots are allowed to strike. The White House would have to get involved.

United pilots file through the departures hall at Washington Dulles Airport on May 12 as part of an informational picket.
Andrea Hsu / NPR
/
NPR
United pilots file through the departures hall at Washington Dulles Airport on May 12 as part of an informational picket.

Still, Helane Becker, senior airline analyst with TD Cowen, says Americans should be prepared for flying to get more expensive.

"Not only because pilot pay is going up, but flight attendant pay is going up as well," she notes, as well as mechanic pay.

With Americans still hungry for travel, airline workers, like so many others in this post-pandemic economy, are in a good position to ask for more.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.