Flight Options negotiations continue

 - September 26, 2007, 6:40 AM

Flight Options pilots are only marginally closer to having a negotiated contract nearly a year-and-a-half after voting in a union. The fractional provider’s more than 600 line pilots are represented by Local 1108, the same group that represents NetJets’ pilots.

According to a union spokesman, the negotiations between Flight Options and its pilots are “going fairly well overall,” but the issues that remain–scope, wages, schedules, bases and domiciles–will be the most difficult to resolve. As a result, the spokesman said he believes the National Mediation Board will need to be called in next year to act as a referee in the talks.

But Flight Options negotiators, who are still counseled by lawyers from union-busting firm Ford and Harrison, are seeing some new faces in the latest negotiations. In August, the Flight Options pilot union held its first Master Executive Council election after getting at least half of the line pilots to pay dues voluntarily. Elected were Mat Slinghoff, chairman; Erick Maluda, vice chairman; Rick Katai, captain representative; Laddie Hostalek, first officer representative; and A.J. McAnelly, secretary.

Behind the scenes, the relationship between the pilots and management is strained at best. The union spokesman told AIN that Flight Options management is doing “everything it can” to make life difficult for the pilots. In fact, over the past nine months 116 pilots have quit, he said.

While work rules are supposed to remain at status quo in the time between a union election and ratification of a negotiated contract, Flight Options continues to impose changes. “The reason,” the spokesman said, “is that status quo is limited. Until the contract is voted in, Flight Options pilots are still at-will employees.”

The latest change by Flight Options is a new vacation policy for pilots, which has drawn mixed reaction from the union. On the one hand, it eliminates forced vacation and allows pilots to bid on vacation time based on seniority. On the other hand, it lumps vacation and sick time into one pool and requires pilots to use 12 of their vacation days per year, leaving only four available sick days.

The union also claims that Flight Options is disciplining pilots for even the smallest infractions. The spokesman said that management has started conducting “productivity investigations” and is punishing pilots who aren’t flying as many legs as their peers. Meanwhile, the company is awarding bonuses to pilots who fly more than a set number of legs per day.

According to the union, this adversely influences safety, since pilots are punished for grounding an airplane due to a valid maintenance issue but are rewarded for turning a blind eye to the problem and flying a broken airplane. Because of this, the union is encouraging Flight Options pilots to call the FAA safety hotline to report any instances in which management is forcing or encouraging pilots to fly unairworthy aircraft.

But what could eventually bring the two sides together is a pilot shortage. “The major U.S. airlines are starting to hire again,” the spokesman noted. “So we’re going to see more pilot departures from Flight Options.”

And these departures might not be filled due to an unattractive flex schedule and restricted domicile policy for new hires at Flight Options. “The company is already making daily requests to pilots for overtime,” the spokesman said. “We’re already understaffed–we know there are numerous uncrewed trips per day.” Things will only get worse, scheduling-wise, if Flight Options’ pilot population dips any further, he added.

“The pilots are hopeful that negotiations will yield a good contract,” the spokesman said, “but they’re aware that each day will be a battle with management.”