Delta Air Lines pilots got an incredible contract. American Airlines says they’ll match and that means pilots who make up to $590,000 per year. United Airlines and Southwest pilots are also negotiating new deals, and have a benchmark of what to expect.
The American Airlines pilot contract is so rich that the increased cost is much greater than the airline’s current profits. Combined with massive debt, American Airlines has a problem if fares do not go up.
Pilot unions have been successful for two reasons. They are better paid than other unions for two simple reasons.
- Pilots are in short supply not just because of early retirements during the pandemic (airlines too taxpayer subsidies meant to keep all airline employees working and used some of that money to encourage pilots and others to stop working early) while not training new ones, but also because pilot unions have been successful lobbying for rules that restrict the number of pilots – a 1500 hour requirement that no one else in the world including Europe comes close to, and that had no relationship to the safety claims used to push it through, along with mandatory retirement ages.
- Pilots can shut down an airline an airline can fly through a flight attendant strike, the way British Airways did, but not so much through a pilot strike because pilots can’t easily be replaced. Meanwhile pilots simply refusing to fly over minor, non-safety items or taking extra time to double and triple check everything combined with slow taxiing, cripples an airline’s performance way beyond what other work groups can do.
Pilots can bring down an airline and can’t be replaced. They have leverage. But their expensive pay could become their own undoing over the long term.
A near-miss like what happened as an American Airlines Boeing 777 taxied out on the wrong runway in front of a Delta Boeing 737 that was taking off shows the potential tragedy of pilot error, the kind of error you would never expect from a machine.
Artificial intelligence is not today ready to take over for a pilot in the cockpit, but much of flying can and is done via auto pilot and that’s effectively AI. We aren’t at a place today where computers replace pilots, but it’s hard to imagine we won’t be in a place 5 to 10 years from now where artificial intelligence computers aren’t a better option for the second pilot in the cockpit.
That’s why the next major battleground for pilot unions is going to be two pilots in the cockpit. Pilots have become so expensive that there’s now an incentive to reduce the number of pilots that are needed. And we’re likely to reach the point years into the future where young aviators will ask, “you mean the plane used to be flown entirely by people? How were they able to avoid runway regular runway incursions?”
Pilot unions will say this is unsafe, but it’s also inevitable – but there’s a data-driven point at which a machine will become safer than a second pilot. We aren’t there today but it’s hard to imagine we won’t get there.
By negotiating these huge pay packages, especially for the most senior pilots who won’t be flying when crunch time comes over giving a captain the tools of a computer-as-copilot, these senior pilots potentially benefit at the expense of their junior colleagues and the profession as a while.
[…] everyone’s thoughts are with the pilot who required assistance. Two pilots still make sense in the cockpit, though eventually that will change. Still, the single remaining Southwest Airlines pilot would have been capable of returning the […]