SEATTLE — Alaska Airlines pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, said Wednesday an "overwhelming" amount of its pilots authorized union leaders to call a strike if contract negotiations with the airline continue to fall through.
In a release, the pilots association said 96% of its members voted on a potential strike, a measure that began May 9 and ended Wednesday. Of the members voting, 99% of pilots approved union leaders to call a strike if necessary and if the National Mediation Board (NMB) permits the action.
The vote to approve a potential strike comes over a month after 1,500 off-duty pilots, almost half of the pilots employed by Alaska Airlines, conducted the largest picket in Air Lines Pilots Association on April 1.
Alaska Airlines had to cancel dozens of U.S. West Coast flights — about 9% of the airline's operations — as off-duty pilots picketed in several major cities over an impasse in nearly three years of contract negotiations. Canceled flights included 66 in Seattle; 20 in Portland, Oregon; 10 in Los Angeles; and seven in San Francisco, according to the flight tracking website flightaware.com.
The Air Line Pilots Association said Alaska Airlines has failed to meet demands for better pay and scheduling, among other issues.
Contract negotiations between the two parties have failed for over three years.
“For three years, Alaska pilots have been resolved in their commitment to reach a new agreement and today, we spoke with one unified voice, just like we did with our recent informational picketing event,” said Capt. Will McQuillen, chairman of the Alaska Airlines ALPA Master Executive Council. “For years, we have been working toward a market-based contract with reasonable solutions that address work rules, scheduling flexibility, and career-security issues that pilots at other companies enjoy, not a strike. Now is the time for management to respond and engage constructively at the bargaining table.”
After the vote was authorized Alaska Airlines said in a release, "our guests and operation are not impacted by this vote."
"We remain committed to reaching a deal to provide an updated contract that is good for Alaska's pilots," the company said in the release.
Before a strike can take place, the NMB must determine additional efforts to mediate between the two parties would not be productive. The NMB can then offer voluntary arbitration. If arbitration is declined by either party, the two sides begin a 30-day “cooling off” period. At that point, a union cannot authorize a strike and management cannot lock out its pilots, though an agreement can still be reached.
Lastly, if the NMB believes the dispute "substantially threatens" essential transportation, it notifies the president who may establish a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). The board is typically made of experienced arbitrators and is designed to submit recommendations for both parties to reach an agreement on a new contract.
"The decision to call a PEB and for it to authorize a strike is based upon the potential economic implications to the geographies that would be impacted by such activity," Alaska Airlines said in a statement May 9.
If a PEB isn't called, at that point the union can also strike.
Alaska Airlines said the company opened negotiations in the summer of 2019, but both sides agreed to table discussions during the pandemic.
The company said it has since offered the "most generous contract offer in our history." Alaska, the nation's fifth-largest airline, also said it will not negotiate in public.
Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci responded to more flight cancellations May 13 in a video message to his employees and customers to apologize for recent interruptions in service.
Minicucci said the company plans to hire and train 150 new pilots, 200 additional reservation agents and 1,100 new flight attendants to minimize impacts in June and through the rest of the year.
“This along with the reductions we made to our schedule will ensure we run an operation that you can count on,” Minicucci said in the video.
In an earlier statement to KING 5, Alaska Airlines said the hiring environment is highly competitive, with the largest airlines expecting to hire up to 10,000 pilots in 2022, but claimed it is offering competitive salaries.
For example, an Alaska Airlines captain’s average salary is $341,000 per year, the airline said.