By Ed Sealover – Reporter, Denver Business Journal
Aug 31, 2018, 5:00am MDT
One month after introducing Denver to its first-of-a-kind mobile strike center, Frontier Airlines’ pilots union has taken the eye-catching vehicle on the road, planning to hit 21 cities in 14 states in an effort to rally the public around its long-running efforts to get a new contract from the Denver airline that institutes pay raises and rolls back what pilots are calling retaliatory measures the company has imposed on them.
While Frontier, which is owned by Phoenix-based private-equity firm Indigo Partners LLC, has been in negotiations with its pilots and the Air Line Pilots Association International union since March 2016, the issues that led to the labor unrest began in 2011 — when the airline still was owned by Republic Airways Holdings.
It was then that pilots made $53 million in wage and other benefit concessionswith Republic in order to stave off an expected Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing and to show creditors that the company was serious about making cuts in order to be released from some of its recession-exacerbated debts. The caveat, said Capt. Alan Christie, an Avon resident and secretary-treasurer of the Frontier pilots union, was that the company would reopen contract negotiations after it achieved two straight years of 5 percent profit margins, with the aim of making the pilots whole for the roughly 15 percent hit they took in pay, benefits and longevity.
Frontier achieved profitability exceeding 14 percent in both 2014 and 2015, according to a lawsuit the ALPA filed in federal court in July alleging bad-faith bargaining on the company’s part. Before those good years happened, though, Republic sold the airline in late 2013 to Indigo, which owned ultra-low-cost competitor Spirit Airlines (Nasdaq: SAVE) when that airline’s pilots struck in 2010 — the last pilot walk-out at an American airline.
When pilots began negotiations with Frontier leaders in 2016, they were told the company could not entertain raises because of a variety of challenging conditions that included Brexit and terrorism, according to the federal lawsuit, to which Frontier has yet to file a response.
As negotiations proceeded fruitlessly, Frontier paid bonuses to management pilots and upstreamed dividends in excess of $100 million to Indigo, the lawsuit contends. And in July, the company began to make a series of “retaliatory changes” against pilots that seem to have been intended to undermine the union, the lawsuit claims.
Frontier limited the frequency of sick leave and began threatening discipline to pilots who did not have at least 70 hours of pay credit at the end of each monthly bid period — a policy it had not enforced in at least five years, the lawsuit states. It involuntarily canceled scheduled August vacations for 140 pilots. And it docked sick banks for pilots who had detected fumes in cabins that caused nausea, vomiting and eye irritation — after the company originally let those pilots recover for a day or two without using up sick time, the suit says.
“Management’s conduct at the negotiating table has been the very definition of bad-faith bargaining,” said Capt. Tracy Smith, chairman of ALPA’s Frontier Airlines group, in a Aug. 27 statement. “It’s clear they will never come to terms with the pilots until they are facing a hard deadline to achieve a contract or face a strike.”
Frontier leaders, who declined through a spokesman to comment for this story, repeatedly have referred to the union’s tactics as a gimmick that bring them no closer to a collective-bargaining agreement.
“We continue to be actively engaged in negotiations with our pilots for a new contract and have exchanged several proposals under the guidance of the National Mediation Board. We look forward to working toward an agreement that is fair, sustainable and provides security for our collective feature,” the company said in a statement in July when the mobile strike center made its debut outside the Denver City and County Building. “Frontier is disappointed that ALPA is resorting to publicity stunts rather than focusing their energy on negotiations.”
Frontier pilots argue in return that they now are paid more than 50 percent less than their lowest-paid counterparts in the U.S. airline industry. Christie said in an interview they are seeking industry-standard pay rates, increased retirement contributions and “some modicum of job security.”
Frontier’s roughly 1,200 pilots have voted to strike and have asked the National Mediation Board to release them from negotiations and let them move onto a 30-day cooling-off period after which any work stoppage can begin. The NMB has not responded yet to that request.