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American Airlines, Pilots Reach Deal on Coronavirus Response

March 17, 2020, 4:13 PM

A new labor agreement between American Airlines and its 15,000 pilots will protect them during the novel coronavirus crisis and help the airline ramp up quickly once air travel picks up again, the pilots’ union says.

The agreement provides pay protections to pilots who are quarantined, allows pilots who have been diagnosed with the virus to use specially designated leave rather than regular sick leave, and provides leave options for pilots who don’t want to fly at this time or who aren’t needed by the company because of reduced air travel demand, said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association who is also a pilot at American.

These options include up to a year of voluntary unpaid leave with continued medical and other benefits; temporary leaves of absence with about 70% pay for periods of one, three, and six months, which will be offered to pilots based on the airline’s needs; and “voluntary permanent” leaves of absence with partial pay to be offered at the company’s discretion to pilots who are at least age 62. Voluntary permanent leaves of absence end when the pilots reach age 65 and are eligible for retirement, according to the text of the agreement.

The new agreement comes as American and other U.S. airlines have suspended flights to numerous destinations because of the coronavirus. Economic ramifications for commercial airlines could be massive, a factor that also could influence collective bargaining. U.S. passenger and cargo carriers directly employ about 750,000 people worldwide and help drive more than 10 million U.S. jobs, according to Airlines for America, an industry association.

The airline is calling the unpaid leave provisions a model for other employees.

“We expect to offer voluntary, unpaid leaves to several other workgroups very soon as we work with every union at American to take care of all of our team members,” American spokesman Joshua Freed said in an email Tuesday.

While the coronavirus agreement is now in place, the union is continuing to bargain with American over a new collective bargaining contract, part of a wave of labor negotiations involving the top four U.S. airlines. The APA wants big changes to the current labor contract, which was reached during a time when American was in bankruptcy, Tajer said in an earlier interview.

‘Safety Net’ and Building Block

The pilots’ union considers the coronavirus deal to be “a safety net” during a period of uncertainty, Tajer said.

It also will allow the airline to ramp up its operations quickly once the worst of the Covid-19 crisis is over, he said. The airline will be able to offer leaves of absence to groups of pilots based on its specific operating needs rather than laying off pilots based on seniority, which could result in a situation where American isn’t prepared for the resumption of regular air travel, Tajer said.

“We want to beat the competition” once the coronavirus crisis has abated, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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