Pilots at the SeaTac-based Horizon Air took legal action against their employer on Friday, claiming that executives at the airline broke the law by violating the terms of a labor contract.
Horizon’s actions, the pilots say, are not only illegal, but also bad for business. In the face of a nationwide pilot shortage, Horizon is unable to hire and retain enough pilots to fly the company’s fleet of airplanes—a growing problem that is systemically disrupting the travel plans of loyal customers, jeopardizing the economic vitality of dozens of communities across the Pacific Northwest and risking the financial success of Horizon’s parent company, Alaska Air Group, Inc.
Horizon Air was forced to cancel 720 flights in December 2016 because there were not enough pilots to fly scheduled routes. Alaska Air instead flew many of the routes on larger planes, adding a significant additional expense for Alaska Air and putting a strain on its staff and regularly scheduled flights.
Horizon’s ability to recruit and retain pilots is strained because pilots at Horizon make substantially less money than pilots at comparable airlines. From last summer through December, the pilots at Horizon had been negotiating with Horizon executives to alter compensation and resolve a severe staffing shortage.
Company executives broke faith with the negotiation process and began making unilateral changes to compensation – a drastic step that will not address the pilot shortage and violates the terms of the Railway Labor Act, a federal law which governs labor relations in the airline industry.
The pilots say they will make strike preparations if executives continue to put the financial stability of Horizon and Alaska at risk and violate the contract agreement. In a September 2016 survey of Horizon pilots, over 80 percent of respondents said they are ready to strike.
“Short-sighted maneuvers won’t solve the staffing problem, and as our airline continues to ground flights, the real victims will be the passengers, customers and communities in the Pacific Northwest that rely on Horizon Air for their livelihood,” said Capt. Jeff Cox, a longtime Horizon pilot and Executive Council Chairman of APA Teamsters Local 1224. “Many of us have worked at Horizon for decades, through thick and thin. We cannot stand idly by and watch executives destroy an operation that provides vital air services to communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.”
Recently, in a desperate attempt to recruit more pilots, Horizon and Alaska executives started offering new Horizon Air pilot recruits signing bonuses – a move that pilots confirm will do nothing to curb the massive retention issues for experienced pilots.
“A one-time payment to new recruits does nothing to address the pilot retention issues at Horizon Air that are already jeopardizing service,” continued Capt. Cox. “While they bring in millions in profits, Horizon and Alaska executives are trying to put a Band-Aid over gaping wounds and forcing our passengers to suffer. The only way we can continue serving our loyal customers in the months and years ahead is to offer industry-standard pay and benefits so we can recruit and retain skilled pilots. We also need a career path that allows Horizon pilots to grow in the nine-time J.D. Power award-winning Alaska family that we are so proud to be part of. The Horizon Air pilots remain ready and willing to negotiate with the company to resolve these long-term issues and are deeply disappointed that the company has not shown the same respect for the bargaining process.”
Alaska Air Group, Inc. brought in $700 million profits in the first nine months of 2016 and recently acquired Virgin America for $2.6 billion. Its subsidiary, Horizon Air, employs approximately 675 pilots and connects passengers on the West Coast, flying routes between Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Alberta and British Columbia in Canada.
Among 16 regional airlines similar in size – including PSA Airlines, Republic Airways, Mesa Airlines and ExpressJet – pay rates for new hires at Horizon Air rank second to last.
“The pilot family at Teamsters Local 1224 stands united with the Horizon pilots. We will not stand by and allow Horizon Air and Alaska Air executives to ignore the provisions of the contract and willfully disregard negotiations with the pilot group by unilaterally changing the terms and conditions of employment,” said Daniel C. Wells, president of the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.