As the pilots of Atlas Air continue to push for the completion of long-stalled negotiations over a new master contract with the company, the International Aviation Professionals (IAP), which represents the Atlas pilots, said focusing on achieving wins for all parties can guide the contract talks to a fast conclusion. Both parties are expected back at the bargaining table starting July 20.
“A win for the customers, win for the shareholders, win for the company and win for the pilots—a 4W standard—should be the focus of the agreement,” said Robert Kirchner, the head of the IAP, Teamsters Local 2750. “Unfortunately, the company has decided to slow the already dragged-out talks and engage in their preferred adversarial labor-management relations. In fact, in a four-day session in June, we bargained less than six hours.”
The Atlas Air pilots have been working without a contract since 2016. Atlas Air is an air cargo and charter airline and aircraft lessor.
“Our customers, like Amazon and so many others, need to know a deal is done,” Kirchner said. “Finally resolving this long-standing dispute would create the stability and a safe environment needed for more sales, growth and more opportunities for the company and pilots. Atlas shareholders would benefit from a done deal, too. An agreement would produce a more secure investment environment that offers better long-term returns and a more efficient and productive operation.”
“A signed contract would also allow for the economic synergies associated with the long-overdue integration and merger of Southern Air to finally occur,” he added. The union estimates that the company has lost approximately $1.4 billion fighting a “philosophical war” against the pilots—money that Kirchner points out “could have paid the contract twice over for the past four years and provided a better return for shareholders and customers.”
“Customers have already left Atlas over uncertainty and the company has lost a tremendous amount of real value because of these protracted negotiations and other poor financial decisions,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose business opportunities. It is time for change.”
Last month, DSV Panalpina, a freight forwarding and logistics company, ended its contract with Atlas Air, forcing the closure of the Huntsville, Alabama, pilot base. At the same time key business partners are looking elsewhere for support.
Amazon recently announced it was adding 12 Boeing 767-300 converted cargo aircraft leased from Air Transport Services Group, one of Atlas’s key competitors. “This deal was downplayed by Atlas management and seemed to go unnoticed by analysts and shareholders,” said Kirchner.
Amazon specifically has voiced its frustration with the failure of Atlas to reach an agreement with its pilots. A May 2019 Business Insider article reported that Amazon was “disappointed with the current state of relations between Atlas and its pilot union.” The story quoted an Amazon spokesperson saying, “The continued inability of Atlas and their pilot union to resolve these negotiations could result in a change to the allocation of our current and future aircraft.”
“If they keep going at this pace, it will be at least another year before they run out the clock on bargaining and force an arbitration, creating complete uncertainty for all parties. Shareholders should be concerned,” he added.
Job security is a key issue. The pilots are looking for guarantees that if Atlas sells assets, the pilots tied to those assets would go to the new company. “We are dealing with people who want to work hard and help Atlas grow, but they need to know they will not be left out in the cold if the company sells,” said Kirchner.
“We want the subpar working conditions addressed, including poor scheduling that costs the company millions per year, and eliminating dangerous situations, especially in foreign countries,” said Kirchner. “Now the pilots are hearing we arelucky to have jobs with what is going on in the passenger aviation industry today. That kind of talk to people who have earned lower-than-industry wages and poor working conditions compared with other airlines does not build loyalty and is not a strong business model.”
Negotiators say the lack of solid work rules and protocols, and service failures, have led to lost confidence by customers and exorbitant operational costs. “When you look at the millions spent on negotiations and lawsuits, it should raise lots of questions for shareholders on how management defines value and plans for the future,” says one negotiation team member.
“We are not just cogs in a machine, we make the airline fly,” Kirchner said. “If you operate with a turnstile employee attitude, you can never achieve long-term success. Job security and adequate pay equals growth. Pilots know that, with the right contract, this company will grow and expand—and we want to be part of the team that makes it happen.
“A company can’t survive and thrive for long with contentious, long-festering labor problems hanging over its head that make its customers, shareholders and employees uneasy and angry,” Kirchner added. “Instead, let’s adopt an approach in which everyone wins.”