Pilots for Denver-based Frontier Airlines have approved a new contract with the carrier, ending a dispute that's dragged on for a decade.
Among the highlights of the pact, which will go into effect on Wednesday, January 16: a 53 percent across-the-board pay increase and a $75 million ratification bonus, which the Air Line Pilots Association International calls the highest such payment ever negotiated on a per-pilot basis.
In December, when the union's Master Executive Council approved the agreement for a ratification vote, Michael Maynard, the MEC's vice chairman, as well as a pilot who's been with the airline for twelve years, told us, "It's been a long road for this pilot group."
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 demonstrations by pilots in Denver right before the 2017 holiday season.
In 2018, 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 didn't go that far — but he pointed 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 remained well below industry standards.
"The pilot group has always given back to the company through bankruptcy and reorganization," he stressed. "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."
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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 the chance for 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.
Now, some of these profits will at last be shared by the pilots. The contract is worth more than $1 billion over its five-year duration — undoubtedly a big factor in its approval by 77 percent of pilots who cast ballots.
In a statement, Captain Tracy Smith, the chairman of the Frontier MEC, notes: "With this agreement, Frontier pilot compensation now reflects the pilot market. From our high monthly guarantee to our industry-leading monthly credit override, our pilot compensation is consistent with the industry patterns for narrow-body pilots. Our new contract retains superior work rules and scheduling flexibility and improves our retirement, benefits and job security."
The approval of the contract doesn't mean that Frontier's labor issues are in the past, however. The union representing the airline's flight attendants has authorized a strike.