SkyWest Pilots Look to Union

The issue driving the pilots to attempt their third organizing effort in seven years has less to do with wages and benefits than it does about more control over their fate in coming years.


For most of its history, SkyWest Inc. has enjoyed labor peace.

No more. As it evolves into a big company, and the turbulence shaking the airline industry continues to intensify, pilots flying for SkyWest's two subsidiaries are becoming restless.

At SkyWest Airlines, more than 100 pilots have formed an organizing committee and are working in earnest with the Air Line Pilots Association to gauge support for a union that would act as the bargaining agent for the carrier's 2,500 aviators.

ALPA is asking the pilots to sign cards that would authorize it to ask the National Mediation Board to conduct a secret-ballot election sometime next year. The union will approach the board if 75 percent of the pilots indicate they want to be represented by ALPA.

The issue driving the pilots to attempt their third organizing effort in seven years has less to do with wages and benefits than it does about more control over their fate in coming years, which many experts say will be marked by instability and consolidations in the airline industry.

"The company has just grown dramatically over the last year. It's gotten to be such a big company, where you can't just walk in and meet with your manager anymore. Everybody knows it's time," said a senior member of the pilot committee who requested that he not be identified for fear of company retaliation.

On another front, pilots who fly for Atlantic Southeast Airlines - bought by SkyWest Inc. last year - are clamoring for a new labor contract to replace one that expired in 2002. ASA's 1,700 pilots, who are represented by ALPA, have put SkyWest on notice that they will strike if a new agreement isn't reached soon.

"If we don't get some negotiating headway made soon, we have made it clear to the company and the National Mediation Board that we will pursue our legal right to strike. . . . We are at a point now where we've exhausted all the tools in our negotiating toolbox," said Rich Bernskoetter, an ASA pilot and ALPA spokesman.

Mike Boyd, an airline analyst with The Boyd Group in Colorado, says the labor disputes are a coincidence. SkyWest Inc. inherited the quarrel between ASA and its unionized pilots when it bought the airline from Delta Air Lines. The fact that SkyWest Airlines has fended off a pilots union for more than 35 years speaks volumes about the company's labor management skills.

"Being part of the pilot's union is like being a member of a country club. The fact that SkyWest pilots are not says a lot, because they haven't thought that they've needed a country club card," Boyd said.

Boyd said the likelihood of consolidation in the regional airline industry is fueling uncertainty among pilots. But he said worries are misplaced.

"There is going to be a shakeout in that part of the industry. But the last to go will be SkyWest, and that will be 30 years from now, and by that time, they'll be in a different business. So, if you are a pilot for SkyWest, by definition, you have job security," Boyd said.

Coincidence or not, SkyWest Inc. is a logical target for union organizers. The St. George-based holding company is a cash cow in the regional airline business. At a time when the big U.S. carriers are struggling with bankruptcies, high fuel bills and stiff competition from low-cost carriers, SkyWest has prospered by providing contract flying services for Delta and United Airlines, which pay its fuel, landing and insurance expenses. Its third-quarter profits grew 35 percent over last year's, to $40.7 million.

"SkyWest, which remains one of our top picks, dominates around 22 percent of the [regional airline] industry's [capacity]. In our opinion, SkyWest stands the best chance to continue to gain market share by obtaining new business" from Delta or other big carriers, airline analyst Ray Neidl of Calyon Securities wrote last month.

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