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A brief history of airline worker strikes

For an industry that relies on a specialized workforce, labor strikes can completely halt an airline’s operations.

A sign at the British Airways ticket counter at San Francisco International Airport saying a flight is canceled.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In an ideal world, workers go on strike to leverage labor power and bargain with employers — often completely stopping business for a few days and almost always at the expense of the company. When airline workers strike, carriers not only have to bear the brunt of furious travelers, but also quickly sort out labor negotiations.

Most pilots who flew for British Airways went on strike earlier this week, which halted nearly all airline operations. Their 48-hour work stoppage affected hundreds of thousands of passengers, leading to delayed trips and flat-out cancellations. An anonymous Guardian op-ed by a British Airways pilot asks (and answers) the question: “Why are pilots earning six-figure salaries going on strike?”

“I feel hugely conflicted,” the pilot writes, but sums up the decision to a demand for respect — a move against pilots’ below-market pay raises and the potential for subcontracted work while the airline rakes in record profits. Strikes, although highly disruptive, are not uncommon for an industry that relies on a workforce of specialists, according to Robert W. Kaps in his 1997 book, Air Transport Labor Relations.

“The strike by employees is the dominant form of self-help activity, which is not to say that only the unions are responsible for strikes,” Kaps wrote. “In many instances, the company has literally forced the unions to strike.”

The British Airways strike, explained

A majority of British Airways’ 4,300 pilots participated in the first strike in the company’s 100-year history on Monday and Tuesday. The collective action — supported by 93 percent of the airline’s pilots — comes after the union’s rejection of an 11.5 percent pay increase over three years. The British Airline Pilots Association claims that pilots have taken pay cuts in the years following the financial crisis to support the company, and are making a “fair, reasonable and affordable claim for pay and benefits,” said Brian Strutton, the union’s general secretary.

British Airways, the UK’s flagship carrier, said in a statement that it had “no option but to cancel” most flights for the duration of the strike, since it couldn’t predict how many pilots would be coming into work. There’s no denying the major passenger impact that comes with that decision: Some 1,700 flights and 290,000 passengers were affected by the 48-hour work freeze, according to BBC estimates, and the canceled flights alone will cost the company $100 million, the union reports.

Customers will be given the option to receive a full refund or rebook their flights, the AP reported, but with the complete operational halt, passenger vitriol is surging. Last month, the airline had already received thousands of phone calls after providing false notice of union-related flight cancellations. And on Twitter, some users are picking apart the pilots’ motives as “greedy” and “self-obsessed” while gawking at their six-figure pay package.

In the US, commercial pilot salaries average to $100,521 a year, according to Glassdoor, although major airlines typically pay above average. American and Delta pilots roughly $159,000 a year, and United and Delta pilots make closer to $180,000 annually. Pay also depends on factors like seniority, the type of plane that a pilot is certified to fly, and how many hours a pilot works, reported.

Pilots represented by the British Airline Pilots Association want an above-inflation pay guarantee, the Guardian reported, and are critical of the profit share enjoyed by company executives and directors.

It’s not just about the pay, Strutton told the Guardian: “Pilots have lost confidence in the management and direction of the airline. A cost-cutting regime has reduced the quality of the service pilots want to give to the customers, as well as affecting themselves.”

Another pilot walkout may come September 27 if British Airways and the union don’t reach an agreement, although flights aren’t being canceled yet.

A brief history of US airline labor strikes

Unless you’re a frequent flier or an aviation nerd, airline strikes (if you remember any at all) could be a blip in your memory. As Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell points out: “The airline strike is notable because pilots rarely go on strike; the disruption to passengers and global travel is huge. In the US, it’s practically illegal for pilots to do so.”

According to Samuel Engel, an aviation consultant, airline strikes are more common in Europe, particularly in France and Italy. The British Airways strike “plays into a larger British social sentiment,” Engel says, in regards to the country’s current political turmoil (The UK prime minister is currently embroiled in a Brexit battle with Parliament). “British Airways has historically been viewed as a rock of the British economy, so this strike also has an emotional component to it,” he adds.

In the US, airlines are subjected to the Railway Labor Act, a federal law that governs labor relations in various transportation industries and ensured employees the right to collective bargaining. “The regulation essentially says that airlines are so core to our economic function that there’s government interest in minimizing labor unrest,” Engel explains.

Under this act, airline labor unions can’t go on strike unless they’ve thoroughly exhausted the negotiation process and the issue at hand is categorized as a “major dispute.” (Minor disputes are expected to be resolved through collective bargaining.)

The Railway Labor Act was applied to airlines in 1936, four years after the first strike by US commercial airline pilots who flew for an interstate commuter airline called Century Air. The Century Air pilots went on strike for two months with the backing of the Air Line Pilots Association, in protest of a 40 percent wage cut imposed by the airline’s owner. The airline was driven out of business, but it reflected “an initial growth in union political power” that led to more pro-union legislation in the New Deal era, wrote San Jose State University professor Isaac Cohen in a 1990 paper that analyzed airline strikes.

American Airlines airplane
American Airlines has been working on a new joint contract with its mechanics since 2015.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Throughout the next century of commercialized air travel, mechanics and flight attendants joined the ranks airline workers to protest pay cuts and improve their contracts. Some disputes escalated so intensely that the federal government got involved: President Lyndon Johnson helped negotiate a 1966 machinists’ strike that lasted for 43 days in the summer; President Bill Clinton halted a 1997 American Airlines pilots strike that had major implications for national air travel; more recently in 2011, the Canadian government intervened in an Air Canada strike, ordering airport agents back to work before an agreement was reached.

Airline profits are booming, but workers don’t feel like they’re receiving the benefits

Engel thinks that workers’ discontent — and their tendency to strike — follows the economic cycle: “I think it’s natural right now that airline labor groups are expecting to share in their company’s profitability.”

The 2008 Great Recession had decimated airlines, but around 2013, their profit margins started to grow again, according to the International Air Transport Association. British Airways pilots could also be frustrated at how their wages are stagnant, in comparison to US pilots who were given “substantial raises” by the carriers in the past few years, Engel adds. Globally, carriers are also dealing with a pilot shortage to keep up with the demand for air travel.

Still, US carriers are not free of their own problems, some of which have been exacerbated by the Boeing 737 Max grounding since March.

American Airlines had most recently been feuding with its mechanics union until August, when a federal court ruled that the workers’ slowdown intentionally caused flight delays for the carrier. The unionized mechanics will have to agree to follow the ruling, or else face discipline and fines, the Dallas Morning News reported.

Contract negotiations are complicated and could take up to years — a frustratingly stagnant back-and-forth process that could be riddled with lawsuits. American has been working on a new joint contract with its mechanics since 2015. Southwest Airlines is trying to secure a deal with its flight attendants by November 1, while entrenched in a legal battle with its mechanics union. But eventually, one side has to budge — it’s just a matter of when and how.

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