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Delta, pilots reach proposed agreement that could boost industry pay

If approved, the agreement could lead to higher wages across the industry

Delta Air Lines planes are parked at gates at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. After years of negotiation, the carrier reached a preliminary agreement with pilots that could increase their pay by more than 30 percent over four years. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg News)

Delta Air Lines and its pilots’ union have reached a preliminary agreement that would provide substantial raises and could lead to higher pilot salaries across the industry.

The early agreement would increase pay for Delta pilots by more than 30 percent over four years and include a one-time signing bonus. It also would offer higher pay to pilots who are rescheduled during a trip, increase paid maternity leave to 10 weeks and offer two weeks of paid leave to both parents.

A clause in the proposal would guarantee the Atlanta-based carrier’s pilots would earn a higher salary than those who fly for rivals American Airlines and United Airlines, which are in contract negotiations with their pilots’ unions.

The early accord comes after years of negotiations, which were put on hold as the industry struggled to stay afloat during a pandemic that saw passenger counts plummet. Ramifications of the agreement are likely to be widely felt among domestic carriers, with officials at other unions saying they hope Delta’s preliminary agreement can offer momentum to their own efforts to reach a deal.

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“We are pleased to have reached an agreement in principle for a new pilot contract, one that recognizes the contributions of our pilots to Delta’s success,” the airline said in a statement.

Delta’s pilots union declined to comment Monday on the preliminary deal, which was reached late Friday. Final contract language is being drafted and must be approved by the union’s governing body in January before being sent to union membership for a vote, said Karen Miller, a spokeswoman for Air Line Pilots Association International, which represents nearly 15,000 Delta pilots.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 American Airlines pilots, said it was reviewing Delta’s preliminary agreement with its pilots, adding that it “represents a significant event” in its own bargaining efforts.

“Without question, bargaining progress by one airline will stimulate other ongoing labor negotiations in our industry,” the union said in a statement.

Pilot unions and airline management largely set aside contract talks as the aviation industry struggled to navigate through the worst of the pandemic, focusing instead on lobbying Congress to provide billions in payroll support to keep workers from losing their jobs. About 50,000 workers — including thousands of pilots — departed the industry, leaving carriers unable to ramp up quickly as travel demand rebounded.

Competition for qualified workers, particularly pilots, has been fierce for several months as passenger counts rebound to pre-pandemic levels. A pilot shortage has prompted some carriers to slash routes to smaller communities. But as some airlines are reporting record revenue amid a broad industry recovery, workers have pushed to ensure they are sharing in the gains.

Analysts say a rocky summer that saw elevated rates of flight cancellations and delays stemmed, in part, from an inability to quickly hire and train workers. Helped by good weather, airlines handled the Thanksgiving travel holiday with relative ease, saying increased hiring and fewer flights meant carriers had staffing in place to avoid problems.

While other unions are also in contract negotiations with airline executives, pilots have been among the most visible, staging informational pickets across the country to demand better working conditions and pay.

Alaska Airlines is one of the few carriers to reach a deal with its pilots, who could receive a more than 20 percent pay increase, depending on years of service, over three years. Negotiations at other carriers have dragged on.

Last month, United pilots overwhelmingly rejected a proposed contract that would have given aviators a 14.5 percent pay increase. Similarly, union leaders with the Allied Pilots Association, which represents those at American Airlines, rejected a proposal that would have offered raises of 19 percent over two years.

In some instances, the two sides have turned to outside mediators. The National Mediation Board, a federal agency that oversees labor issues in the airline and railroad industries, has stepped in to help with negotiations between Southwest Airlines and its pilots union.

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Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Pilots Association, said the carrier already has lost at least 60 pilots to other airlines and risks losing more if the two sides can’t reach a deal.

“Our pilots are the most productive in the industry and we want to see that productivity rewarded,” he said.

In a statement, Southwest Airlines said it continues to monitor what is happening in the industry, adding, “we remain committed to working toward an agreement that meets our Pilots’ needs and solidifies Southwest’s standing as an employer of choice for Pilots.”

While Delta’s preliminary agreement might add urgency to negotiations at other airlines, unions this week were continuing to apply pressure on airline executives. Murray said Southwest pilots plan to picket the carrier’s Investor Day, scheduled for Wednesday in New York. Meanwhile, United pilots will hold an informational picket outside the carrier’s board of directors meeting Wednesday in Houston.

“Our informational picketing sends management the message that United pilots are unified, and we’ve waited long enough for a contract,” Capt. Mike Hamilton, chair of the United Master Executive Council, said in a statement.

United spokesman Charles Hobart said the carrier is continuing to work toward reaching an agreement with pilots. As a show of good faith, the carrier said it will begin previously agreed-upon raises of 5 percent this month instead of in several months. He said the carrier is also working to identify key areas that could lead to an agreement.

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