Editor's note: After the publication of the post below, the Air Line Pilots Association council representing Frontier pilots unanimously approved a tentative contract, clearing the way for it to be sent to members for ratification. Voting will begin on December 20 and end on January 10. Continue for our previous coverage.
The protracted beef between Denver-based Frontier Airlines and its 1,200-plus pilots could finally be nearing a truce.
Beginning today, December 4, the Master Executive Council (MEC) representing Frontier pilots under the auspices of the Air Line Pilots Association International will begin debating whether to forward a preliminary agreement with the carrier to a vote of the entire membership. If the five-year contract is ratified, it will end a decade of frustration and uncertainty for pilots.
"It's been a long road for this pilot group," says Michael Maynard, vice chairman of the Frontier MEC, as well as a pilot who's been with the airline for twelve years, the last three and a half or so as a captain.
That's a considerable understatement. In Maynard's view, Frontier pilots have been under significant stress since at least 2008, when the company filed for bankruptcy — and the latest negotiations period had dragged on for approximately two years and nine months before the recent breakthrough took place. This span was marked by numerous public-relations disasters for Frontier, as well as bottom-scraping quality ratings and public protests by pilots in Denver right before the 2017 holiday season.
This year, the pressure ratcheted up even higher. In June, Frontier pilots announced that they were 100 percent ready to strike, and they proved it the following month by filing a lawsuit intended to force the airline to bargain in good faith. In the meantime, a pilot who spoke with Westword in September under the promise of anonymity said the way Frontier treats its employees at every level, as exemplified by the cancellation of all pilot vacations for the third month in a row, had reached such an extreme that the results could be tragic.
In his words, the situation was "so hostile and increasingly seen as futile by the pilot group, flight attendants, mechanics and gate and ground personnel that Frontier is setting itself up for a major mishap."
Maynard doesn't go that far.
"I would say the morale among the pilot group is extraordinarily low," he acknowledges. "But I don't believe there's a safety issue. Things have changed at Frontier. A lot of positions that used to be staffed by Frontier employees are now outsourced. But that in and of itself doesn't make things unsafe."
Still, Maynard points out that while pilots played a major role in helping Frontier transform from a firm on the brink of collapse to a successful low-cost carrier, their pay and benefits are currently well below industry standards.
"The pilot group has always given back to the company through bankruptcy and reorganization," he stresses. "We always tried to help the company out. That's really the nature of this group, to be honest. But there have been many promises made along the way, and contractual promises weren't lived up to."
Indeed, after Frontier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, pilots agreed to take a 14.5 percent pay cut and gave up contributions to 401(k) plans — concessions estimated at $4.75 million — in an attempt to mitigate against furloughs. Then, in 2011, following not one, but two ownership switches, the pilots gave back another $55 million to be spread out over the course of a five-year contract, but with the caveat that once the airline was profitable for two years back to back, they would be able to negotiate higher pay rates. When the contract expired in early 2016, however, Frontier declined to pony up, despite having been in the black for the prescribed stretch.
According to Maynard, this scenario finally shifted a few weeks ago, for reasons that remain unclear. "I don't think anyone truthfully has an answer to why," he acknowledges. "The reality of it is, the National Mediation Board," which has been involved since at least 2015, "set a meeting after not having one for six months. ALPA didn't request that meeting, and we don't know if the company did, or if the board did it on its own. But something had changed, and the company was looking to get something done."
Although Maynard can't share specifics about the preliminary agreement until after it reaches the pilot group, he says the negotiating committee wouldn't have signed on if they didn't think the contract's provisions were at least comparable with those enjoyed by pilots for other major carriers.
The Master Executive Council for Frontier is scheduled to meet today and on the 5th. If its members offer a thumbs-up, the pilots' group will be asked to give its blessing over a period expected to last from mid-December until mid-January. Votes can either be submitted electronically or via standard mail.
Ratifying the contract won't end potential labor strife for Frontier. Flight attendants for the airline recently voted to authorize a strike, and while federal rules prevent them from walking off the job immediately, the threat remains.
"Our hope is that Frontier sees the value of having good relations with all its employee groups, not just pilots," Maynard says. "So we're very supportive of the flight attendants."
Who undoubtedly hope it won't take them ten years to reach a deal of their own.