Despite a series of public-relations disasters in recent years, Frontier Airlines, which portrays itself as Denver's hometown carrier, is finally making money again after a bankruptcy ten years ago. But not nearly enough of it is coming to Frontier's pilots, the most underpaid in the industry by a wide margin. After years of fruitless negotiations, they're ready to strike right now, on the cusp of the busy summer travel season.
Not that walking a picket line is their preferred course of action.
"Our goal is not to go on strike," says Captain Alan Christie, spokesperson for Frontier pilots under the auspices of the Air Line Pilots Association. "Our goal is to get a new contract and support Frontier Airlines' business model. They have very aggressive growth plans going forward, but they're not going to be able to accomplish them without getting the pilots on board."
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Frontier's pilots have publicly shared their grievances before, including this past December, when personnel picketed in downtown Denver. But this time, they've taken steps toward making a strike a reality by way of a late April letter to the National Mediation Board, the body that's been working with the pilots and the company in an attempt to resolve their longstanding dispute. The document, accessible below, declares that talks have hit a dead end, and if the board agrees, Christie and his colleagues could be on the fast track to the first major work stoppage by pilots in nearly a decade.
How did things reach this point? Christie, who's flown for Frontier since the early 2000s, offers some background.
"In 2008, Frontier Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy when the economy came apart," he recalls, "and the pilots were asked to take a leadership role in reducing costs. And we did. We took a 14.5 percent pay cut and gave up contributions to our 401(k) plan. In all, we gave up $4.75 million in pay and other concessions to mitigate against the company furloughing pilots."
Since then, Christie continues, "the airline has changed hands twice. It was purchased out of bankruptcy, and that extended the pay concessions. Afterward, we came out of bankruptcy, but when the second hit to the economy came with high oil prices, we headed back toward bankruptcy. That's when the company came to us again, and this time, in 2011, the pilots agreed to concessions of more than $55 million to be spread out over the five years of the agreement. But the caveat with that was that when the airline was profitable for more than two years back to back, they agreed to negotiate higher pay rates."
In the wake of the pact's signing, Frontier was purchased again, this time by Indigo Partners, a private equity firm. At that point, Christie notes, "it turned into the airline we know today — an ultra-low-cost carrier."
Under Indigo, the airline has finished at or near the bottom in customer service surveys on a number of occasions. But the bottom line has improved dramatically.
"In 2014, the fortunes turned for the airline," Christie says. "Our agreed-to terms for new negotiations called for a 5 percent profit margin, and they've exceeded that; they've made 23 percent, 25 percent, 18 percent, depending on what year you look at. They're wildly profitable. But when the pilots went back, according to our letter of agreement, and asked to renegotiate, they told us business conditions wouldn't allow that. We filed a grievance with the National Mediation Board over that, and we won in July 2015. They found the company had been negotiating in bad faith, and they forced us back to the bargaining table. But they offered us a 1.5 percent pay raise over the rates we negotiated back in 2007. And since then, not only has inflation gone up, but the pilot marketplace has changed remarkably. As a result, Frontier pilots find ourselves more than 40 percent behind our closest rivals in terms of pay, retirement benefits, work rules, etc."
Problem is, a provision of the Railway Labor Act, a measure originally passed in 1926 that still governs such matters, makes a strike illegal unless the board declares an impasse — which Christie feels is clearly evident. "We've been negotiating for over two years, and the company is still asking us for concessions, believe it or not. They want us to give up work rules, they're asking us to take a substandard retirement, and they don't want to match the pay rates that are standard in the industry."
Thanks to recent agreements involving JetBlue and Spirit airlines, Frontier's pilots are now the last to be flying for rates rooted in what Christie describes as "a bankruptcy-era contract." Nonetheless, Frontier's response to the pilots' letter to the National Mediation Board, sent on May 11 and also accessible here, insists there's not an impasse and asks that negotiations continue.
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Under that scenario, Frontier pilots would have to keep working under the old contract, which expired in 2016. But the board can also side with the pilots, thereby triggering a thirty-day cooling-off period. "At the end of that," Christie says, "the company would be free to lock us out, or the pilots would be free to engage in self-help" — the much more polite term used in this situation for a strike.
To put it mildly, airline strikes are rare. According to Christie, "the last one was Spirit in 2010. Before that, it was Northwest Airlines in September of 1998, and before that, it was United in 1985." [Editor's note: Additionally, Comair, a Delta subsidiary, went on strike for 89 days in 2001.]
There's no deadline for the board to rule. But if members decide that time's finally up, Frontier's pilots are ready to leave the cockpit. In Christie's words, "We're adamant that we are not going to work for a discount anymore."
Click to read Frontier pilots' letter to the National Mediation Board and the company's response.