Business

Alaska seeks a spirited return

Roll the clock back to last December. Alaska Airlines and its pilots had been negotiating a new contract for almost two years, but the progress was minimal for all of the talking the two sides had done.

The pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association, was seriously thinking strike. The union had begun work stoppage preparations, and the SeaTac-based airline remained mum about the progress of the negotiations.

Fast forward five months. Just last week, the airline’s nearly 1,500 pilots ratified a new four-year deal without striking. Eighty-four percent of pilots voting cast “yes” ballots for ratification.

Perhaps more amazing, that new agreement, which contains some substantial first-year raises for pilots and first officers, came during a time when the airline industry and the economy as a whole was in distress. Traffic is falling. Fares are down, and the airline industry is storing even more planes in the desert.

The agreement came when other unions across the nation were negotiating, not raises, but the terms of severance and layoffs.

What happened to reverse the collision course which both the union and the airline were taking?

The News Tribune talked with David Campbell, the union’s strategic communications chairman, about the changed course of events.

Why did these talks, seemingly headed toward impasse, result in a new contract?

One of the things that changed – and this was really significant – Brad Tilden became president of Alaska Airlines. He brought a new vigor to the negotiations on management’s part. When Brad became president, he got his hands dirty. Where we had been really at loggerheads for months, he came in and we had agreements on sections within weeks. I think Brad really deserves recognition for that and acknowledgement.

What’s good about this contract?

The fact that we got some substantial pay increases considering the current economy, (11.84 percent for captains, 16.35 to 29.52 percent for first officers in the first year. Small incremental raises in the second through fourth years.) I think that reflects that management recognizes and values the role the pilots play in this organization. And it seems like it reflects a willingness to treat us as partners. And we worked out agreements that had benefits both for us and the company in work rules, pensions, health care and job security.

These double digit raises come against a backdrop of double digit cuts averaging 26 percent four years ago imposed by an arbitrator. Were those big cuts difficult to bear?

It was a kick in the gut. It really was a shocker. A lot of people lost homes. Marriages failed. They had to get rid of cars. It was difficult. Talking about that today with everything that’s happening now in the economy may seem extra whiny, but this was four years ago.

Passenger traffic is down. Fares have fallen. Can Alaska afford to give its pilots raises?

We work for a good company. They traditionally have been fiscally responsible and cautious. Bill Ayer (Alaska’s chairman) said at the annual meeting that the company follows the principles that your parents or your grandparents might have told you: You don’t buy things you can’t afford, and you don’t borrow money that you can’t pay back, so we’re in a position where the economy is bad and the airline industry is struggling, but we’re in a pretty strong position.

What does Alaska get from this contract?

What it means to me is returning Alaska to the company it used to be. It’s a company where employees have a sense of ownership and a sense of pride. When I got hired here six and a half years ago, I’d go to dinner parties. People would ask me what I do. People would invariably praise Alaska Airlines – what a great company it was, and how they enjoyed flying on it. Two years later in that same situation, the tone had changed.

Why?

It’s tempting in the airline business, where things are so tight, to look at problems as the cost of economizing. But if you put a stake through the heart of your company while you’re cutting costs, you get to look like everybody else.

Do you think that’s changing?

I think that we can bring that Alaska spirit back. I think we can bring the heart and soul of our company back. I don’t think it ever died, but it took a bit of a blow. The gains that we’ve seen in the contract, reflect that the company is swinging the other way. I think the company is taking a different approach to creating a culture that allows us to succeed in the industry.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

john.gillie@thenewstribune.com

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