Alaska Airlines pilots reject benefit cuts

Pilot pay cut, though health, retirement plan remain the same

Posted: Tuesday, July 12, 2005

SEATTLE - Alaska Airlines pilots have overwhelmingly chosen to stick with a contract handed down by an arbitrator rather than replace it with an agreement negotiated by their union.

Essentially, it was a decision to take a steeper pay cut rather than give up some benefits, said Capt. Mark Bryant, chairman of the Alaska pilots union.

"Our pilots were faced with two choices, neither of them good," Bryant said in a news release. "By overwhelmingly rejecting this tentative agreement, our pilots have unequivocally said their future benefits are worth more than a little extra money in their pockets right now."

The Air Line Pilots Association represents 1,450 pilots at Alaska. Ninety percent of union members voted, with the results 1,186-148 against ratification of the five-year agreement, which union negotiators reached with management in May. The results were announced Monday.

The arbitrator's two-year contract, which took effect May 1, will remain in place - though the union is suing in federal court to vacate it.

The arbitrator's contract cut pay an average of 26 percent - reductions the airline says it needs to stay competitive. But it allowed the pilots to keep their health and retirement plans.

The five-year agreement called for a smaller pay cut, 20 percent across the board, but it would have required the pilots to adopt a new health care plan proposed by management, with increased premiums and altered retirement options. The pilots also would have had to give up certain workplace rights, such as those involving scheduling.

"Once you lose those work rules, those are quality-of-life issues," said Tony Salmon, a six-year Alaska pilot who voted against ratification.

Top-scale Alaska pilots made $196.08 per flight-hour under their prior contract - about $15,700 for flying a typical 80-hour month. Under the arbitrator's agreement, top-scale pilots saw that cut about 22 percent, to $151.79, or about $12,140 per month. Less senior pilots saw their pay cut as much as 34 percent.

Airline officials said they believed the five-year agreement was a better deal in part because it would have lasted longer, providing more certainty for the workers.

"We believe the tentative agreement ... offered a better long-term option for our pilots," said Alaska Chairman Bill Ayer.

Bryant said he hopes that in two years, when Alaska and the union negotiate another contract, the airline will remember how much the pilots have given up - a number he put at $90 million.

"We hope our management will use that money wisely and turn Alaska Airlines into the profitable, thriving carrier that we know it can be," Bryant said.

Alaska is the nation's ninth-largest carrier. In May, it laid off 500 baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, saying it needed to trim costs amid rising fuel prices and fierce competition from low-cost carriers. The jobs were given to a nonunion subcontractor.

Last month, the company reached a tentative agreement on a four-year contract with its 700 aircraft technicians.

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