Last month, pilots for Denver-based Frontier Airlines declared that they were 100 percent ready to strike even though they're currently precluded from doing so by federal law. So on July 25, their union, the Air Line Pilots Association, did the next best thing, filing a lawsuit asking that a U.S. District Court judge force the carrier to actually try to resolve a situation that's gone from bad to worse.
"We took necessary steps to represent our pilots at the bargaining table, insisting on the good-faith bargaining that the law requires as part of our effort to achieve the market-rate contract our pilots deserve," said Captain Tracy Smith, head of ALPA’s Frontier Airlines pilot group, in a statement. "We’re asking the court to enforce a neutral arbitrator’s decision that the company bargained in bad faith and must negotiate pay increases for Frontier pilots, compel Frontier to cease their bad-faith conduct and bargain in good faith, and require the company to refrain from undermining the bargaining process."
In response to the suit, Frontier Airlines spokesperson Richard Oliver writes, "We continue to be engaged in negotiations with our pilots for a new contract and have exchanged several proposals under the guidance of the National Mediation Board. Frontier is disappointed that ALPA is spending energy spreading false narratives, rather than attempting to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that is fair, sustainable and provides security for everyone.”
ALPA representatives aren't granting interviews about the suit or its backstory. But in June, Captain Alan Christie, an ALPA spokesman who took part in a December 2017 protest against Frontier in Denver, laid out the history behind the negotiations in an interview with Westword.
"In 2008, Frontier Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy when the economy came apart," he explained, "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 continued, "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 noted, "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 said. "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 (RLA), a measure originally passed in 1926 that still governs such matters, makes a strike illegal unless the board declares an impasse — which is clearly evident, in Christie's view. "We've been negotiating for over two years, and the company is still asking us for concessions, believe it or not," he said last month. "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."
The introduction to the suit, accessible below in its entirety, sums up the rationale for the action.
"In the face of a neutral labor arbitrator’s finding that Frontier made material misrepresentations about its finances and bargained in bad faith with ALPA, and despite years of industry-leading profitability, Frontier has continued to flout its judicially enforceable RLA obligation to make and maintain agreements with ALPA," the suit says. "It has thumbed its nose at the RLA-mandated arbitration remedy and made a mockery of the collective bargaining process. Despite ALPA’s and ALPA pilots’ established success in negotiating pilot labor agreements with dozens of carriers, including other 'ultra low-cost' carriers with business models similar to Frontier, ALPA and the Frontier pilots have endured many months of fruitless efforts to negotiate with Frontier’s obstructionist and punitive management. ALPA now therefore brings this action to enforce the arbitrator’s ruling and obtain injunctive relief requiring Frontier to meet its obligations under the RLA — relief which only this Court may grant."
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Specifically, the document continues, ALPA "seeks an order and judgment of this Court confirming, enforcing and ordering a remedy for the August 7, 2017 Award of the Frontier Airlines System Board of Adjustment...concluding that Frontier, which persists in paying its pilots bottom of the industry rates despite its industry leading profits, failed to negotiate in good faith over pilot compensation after Frontier exceeded contractual profit metrics mandating such negotiations. ALPA also seeks an order compelling Frontier, in accordance with its obligations under the RLA, to bargain in good faith with ALPA over rates of pay, rules, and working conditions of Frontier pilots, which it has thus far failed to do, and to otherwise cease its course of bad faith conduct undermining the RLA bargaining process and ALPA as the exclusive representative of the Frontier pilots."
Among other things, the suit's "prayer for relief" calls for "enjoining, ordering, directing, and requiring Frontier and its directors, officers, agents, and employees, to refrain from interfering with, undermining, subverting, or destroying ALPA’s status and effectiveness as the collective bargaining representative of the Frontier pilots."
By the way, a different collective, the Transport Workers Union of America, is currently attempting to organize gate agents, ticket-counter representatives and other employees who work for Frontier at facilities such as Denver International Airport. Yesterday, we published a story detailing Frontier worker claims of low pay, sinking morale and bad conditions at DIA.
Click to read Air Line Pilots Association International v. Frontier Airlines Inc.
Update: This post was updated at 8:45 a.m. to incorporate a statement from Frontier Airlines.