NetJets pilots reach accord

 - October 17, 2006, 6:10 AM

Four years after their contract became “amendable,” the unionized NetJets pilots may finally have a new work agreement. On October 8, the bargaining committee for pilots at Berkshire Hathaway-owned fractional provider NetJets reached a tentative agreement (TA) with the company.

“With this agreement a better future for the pilots and families can be assured,” noted NetJets master executive council (MEC) president Bill Olsen.

At press time, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 1108–the union that represents NetJets’ 2,000 pilots–was mailing the agreement and voting ballots to members. The pilots have 30 days to cast their ballots, with a count planned for November 21. A union spokeswoman believes that about 75 percent of the membership will vote in favor of the proposal.

She told AIN that the five-year tentative contract was “by no means perfect,” though she did say that the scope provisions were “awesome.” Pilot pay, one of the biggest sticking points in the negotiations, in the new TA has been increased by an average of between 40 and 60 percent (see chart). This would make NetJets pilots the highest-paid in the fractional industry. NetJets declined to comment, as it has throughout the process.

The pilots will not get the retroactive pay that they apparently sought. Instead, they will get a “signing bonus” calculated at $833 per month worked since Oct. 1, 2001 (the day the existing contract became amendable).

Quality-of-life improvements–notably scheduling and home basing–were also a union priority. Here, the pilots largely got what they wanted–a seven-and-seven schedule for most and home basing (meaning no gateways) for at least 70 percent of the pilot workforce.

According to the union spokeswoman, the best part of the TA is its strong scope-clause provision, which contains merger language, successorship protections and future flying protections. More important, it also addresses NetJets International (NJI)–the company’s non-union fractional arm that flies Gulfstreams–which Local 1108 wants merged with NetJets Aviation (NJA), the unionized division.

Specifically, the TA allows the IBT to petition the National Mediation Board (NMB) for single-carrier status three years after contract ratification. If the NMB approves the petition, NJI would merge with NJA, creating a single pilot workforce that is represented by Local 1108.

Under the TA, one-third of the open captain positions and half of the open first-officer slots would be filled by pilots from the NJA seniority list. While these pilots would conform to NJI scheduling and training, they would remain unionized employees. This would create a mix of union and non-union pilots at NJI, which the union said will all but guarantee that the NMB approves the single-carrier petition.

There have been many twists and turns on the long journey to get to the latest agreement. It hasn’t been easy but the perseverance of the collective pilot group resulted in the victory.

It took almost two years after the contract became amendable in 2001 for NetJets management and the pilot union to start negotiations on a new work proposal. They finally reached a TA in August last year, but 82 percent of the pilots voted against it.

Overall, the pilots believed that last year’s agreement was severely lacking in pay, scope protection, scheduling and pilot basing. Another hot button was a provision that allowed cockpit voice recordings to be used in disciplinary actions.

Backlash against the then-MEC members for supporting that TA led to their ouster last fall during elections. A five-member slate called Strong Union easily won the MEC elections after vowing to strengthen the pilots’ union and fight hard for a better contract.

The MEC, headed by Olsen, first set out to get members involved by setting up numerous committees and asking for volunteers. Next, the group petitioned to break away from IBT Local 284 and build their own IBT local. Their effort was successful, resulting in the formation of Local 1108, with a long-term goal to unionize pilots at other fractionals.

Then the MEC’s attention turned to getting a fair labor contract by using all resources at its disposal. However, the Railway Labor Act of 1926, under which airlines and fractional providers fall, doesn’t leave many options. Since the pilots were unable to strike or cause any work action without NMB release, the MEC used the embarrassment tactic–informational picketing.

It started with billboards near Teterboro Airport, N.J., and NetJets’ operations center in Columbus, Ohio. Then the campaign went to several high-profile events, including the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

Now the pilots appear eager to vote on the new contract and, if ratified, get back to “normal.”