Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings pilots picket for a better contract

By Bill Heltzel

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Pilots for Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings picketed headquarters in Purchase on Sept. 9 to draw attention to what they say is a company strategy to deny them a fair contract.

The Airline Professionals Association, a part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, began negotiating with Atlas in January. Talks stalled after Atlas’ $110 million acquisition of Southern Air Holdings in April.

At that point, a union official said, the Teamsters and Atlas had agreed on 15 of the contract’s 32 sections.

Atlas Air Worldwide is a holding company that includes Atlas Air, Polar Air and Southern.

The Teamsters claim that once Atlas began talks in January, negotiations had to continue in good faith for 270 days, under their contract. Atlas said in a statement that when it acquired Southern Air the contracts required it to negotiate a joint collective bargaining agreement that includes Southern pilots.

Mike Griffith, a union communications official and Boeing 747-400 captain for Atlas, said the union is not necessarily opposed to one contract. But it fears that Atlas is merely trying to merge two substandard contracts rather than bring the pilots up to industry standards.

He said Atlas pilots are paid roughly 40 to 50 percent less than pilots at competing cargo airlines such as FedEx and UPS.

Actual pay rates vary according to a number of factors, such as the rank, years of service, type of jet flown, number of crew members and whether the trip is domestic or international.

For example, Griffith said the captain of a 747-400 at the top of the pay scale makes about $213 an hour “when the engines are turning.” Pilots at other airlines make more than $300 an hour.

What’s more, FedEx pilots are guaranteed 72 hours a month while Atlas pilots are guaranteed 62 hours. That works out to an annual minimum of about $158,000 a year for Atlas captains versus $259,000 for FedEx captains.

Griffith said the Southern Air contract requires pilots to put in as many as 28 hours straight compared with 22 hours under the Atlas Air contract.

“They’re flying around the world exhausted,” Griffith said. “It’s the equivalent of you being chained to your desk with enough chain to go to the rest room and the snack machine. Twenty-eight hours is draconian. No one else does it.”

He said Atlas is losing pilots to competitors because of the discrepancy in pay and work conditions.

Atlas Air did not respond to questions about pay or work rules.

Spokeswoman Bonnie Rodney said the company respects the Teamsters right to express their opinions and the company stands ready to address those concerns at the negotiating table.

“We are continuing our dialogue with the union,” she said, “in an attempt to reach a path forward for the bargaining process.”

Griffith said there have been no discussions for months.

Atlas pilots recently voted by a 99 percent majority to authorize its leaders to call a strike.

About 30 pilots and a few family members picketed along Westchester Avenue in front of the company’s entrance on Sept. 9. At one point a group of dispatchers joined them.

Griffith said Atlas employees who work in warehouses and fuel and load the planes are Teamsters, as are most of the truck drivers who deliver cargo to the airports, and they would not cross a picket line if a strike is called. He said there is a shortage of qualified pilots, so striking pilots could not be replaced easily.

“If we withheld our services, it would bring them to a screeching halt,” he said.

The Teamsters said in a press release that Atlas’ biggest customer, DHL shipping, would be crippled by a strike.

The union contends that Atlas and its two largest customers, DHL and Amazon, are profitable and have the means to bring pilots up to industry wage standards.

Atlas Air Worldwide had revenue of $1.8 billion last year. It employs 2,000 people, including about 1,400 pilots, and operates a fleet of more than 80 jets.

The strike authorization vote, Rodney said, is a tactic that unions use to leverage their bargaining position. Regardless, she said, the union has no contractual right to strike.

Airlines are regulated under the Railway Labor Act. The law allows workers to organize and negotiate but protects airlines from being disrupted by wildcat strikes. Employees must continue to work as they try to resolve disputes.

Airline collective bargaining agreements do not expire. So, until both sides agree on changes, an existing contract remains in effect.

The Teamsters have asked the National Mediation Board, which supervises the process, to intervene. The union is awaiting a ruling that it hopes would compel Atlas to negotiate or submit to binding arbitration.

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About the author

Bill Heltzel
Bill Heltzel has covered criminal justice, courts, government and sports – as a beat reporter and investigative reporter – for daily newspapers in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He worked for Bloomberg LP in training and sales. He joined The Business Journal in 2016.
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