Flight Options fights unionization

 - September 25, 2006, 7:03 AM

Early last month the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 1108 filed an application letter to the National Mediation Board (NMB) for representation of the 830 Flight Options pilots. According to Local 1108 president Bill Olsen, the concerns of pilots at the number-two major fractional provider include securing a contract with wages, benefits and working conditions comparable to industry standards, along with better job security and worker protections. Local 1108 currently represents the 2,400 pilots at NetJets, the largest fractional-ownership provider.

The union’s move comes on the heels of Raytheon’s buying the remaining 3-percent interest of Cleveland-based Flight Options from minority shareholders on December 23. This purchase makes the fractional provider a wholly owned Raytheon subsidiary.

At press time the NMB had just authorized an election for union representation. Officially, Flight Options told AIN it “does not comment on employee relations,” including union-organizing activities. But on www.yourcompanyyouroptions.com, a Web site sponsored by Raytheon, Flight Options vice president of flight operations Bob Tyler wrote that he expected the agency to “make an announcement sometime after January 20” about such an election.

Union organizers believe the site, whose purpose is to “educate” the pilot workforce about unions, was developed by Miami-based Ford & Harrison, a union-busting law firm hired by Raytheon, according to NMB filings.

Not surprisingly, many Flight Options pilots have labeled the Web site “propaganda” and “anti union” in nature. However, NMB rules prohibit Flight Options from interfering in the union election process, so the site’s content has been carefully crafted so as not to directly portray an anti-union stance. For example, it contains information on how not to vote in the expected Flight Options union election, which will be conducted using the NMB’s telephone electronic voting system.

Pay Raise in Question

Tyler’s messages to the pilots also bring up the “laboratory period,” which means that, since being notified of the union-organizing drive, Flight Options is prohibited by NMB rules from making any changes in pay, working conditions or benefits until the election, if called, is over. Therefore, Tyler wrote, the planned pilot-pay increase last month– which was verbally promised to Flight Options pilots in December, before Local 1108 filed the NMB application–cannot take place.

According to Local 1108’s Olsen, the IBT’s labor lawyers have reviewed the matter and said that any pay increases planned before the filing would be allowed. In fact, Olsen and the IBT lawyer sent a letter to Flight Options management authorizing Flight Options to follow through on the pay increase.

Tyler rebutted by writing that any wage increase during a union drive would amount to interference and could overturn the election if the union isn’t voted in. Further, he writes, “The union knows, while in the laboratory period, Flight Options is prohibited from giving unscheduled and previously unannounced pay and/or benefit increases. Any claim to the contrary has no basis in the law. It’s only meant to confuse and anger you.

“By making this…claim, the union organizers have diverted your attention away from the real issue at the heart of this campaign. That is, do you want the Teamsters airline division and its director, Don Treichler, to speak for you or do you want to speak for yourself?”

But according to Olsen, IBT Local 747 (the Teamsters airline division) or Treichler have no role in representing the Flight Options pilots. Instead, Local 1108– formed with the intent of representing only fractional pilots–is behind the drive and the group under which the Flight Options pilots would be organized. Further, the union negotiating team would be comprised of Flight Options pilots, meaning they and the the pilot-selected master executive council–armed with polling data from the union workforce–would speak for the pilot group during contract negotiations.

Olsen said the real issue of the union campaign is pay, domiciles and quality-of-life issues. With the announcement last month that Flexjet plans to increase its pilot wages as of May 1, Flight Options pilots’ pay will lag far behind that of their peers at the other major fractionals.

Additionally, current pilot wages at the company are based on time in seat, not date of hire as they are at the other companies. For example, this means that a five-year Flight Options first officer who is upgraded to captain would start at one-year captain pay, which often results in promotion with a pay cut.

As for domiciles, last year the company revoked the longstanding “live where you want” policy for pilots when management removed “Tier 3” airport domiciles, forcing pilots at these domiciles to either quit or move to a Tier 1 airport domicile.

A Flight Options letter sent to pilots last March explained the tier system: “Tier 3 airports are located in remote parts of the country, and…may require numerous connecting flights, have increased costs over other domiciles and have limited flight availability. Tier 1 airports are major hubs… identified as being beneficial locations… and other current domiciles have been classified as Tier 2.”

According to the five Flight Options pilots who initiated the union-organizing drive, “We have seen a steady reduction in the quality of our accommodations over the past year.” They also cite recent changes to crew meals, per diem and benefits, among others, as further negatively affecting the pilots’ quality of life.

In a recorded message to the pilots, Flight Options COO and acting CEO S. Michael Scheeringa said, “While we believe in the pilots’ rights to make their own decisions regarding representation, we do not feel that it’s in the best interest to vote for Teamster representation.”