A Virgin Atlantic's Boeing 747 jumbo jet sits in a hanger prior to takeoff at Heathrow International Airport in London, U.K., on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008. Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., the U.K. carrier controlled by billionaire Richard Branson, today flew the Boeing Co. 747 plane partially powered by biofuel derived from a mix of babassu and coconut oil, the first for commercial aircraft. Photographer: Gill Allen/Bloomberg News

Delta pilots union alleges airline uses joint venture to outsource flying 

The pilots union at Delta Air Lines is calling for conditions to be placed on a proposed joint venture between Delta and Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic, as the federal government weighs approval of antitrust immunity for the deal.

The proposed trans-Atlantic deal would combine two existing joint ventures: Delta-Virgin Atlantic and Delta-Air France-KLM

Getting antitrust immunity allows airlines to coordinate on prices and schedules and to share revenue on flights between the United States and Europe on a joint venture, instead of competing against each other.

The Air Line Pilots Association at Delta alleges Virgin Atlantic is adding flights while Delta is flying fewer flights between London and New York than it did before the joint venture (JV).

“In other words, Delta effectively used the JV to outsource flying that should have been performed by Delta pilots to a foreign airline partner,” the union said in a written statement.

Notably, Delta and its pilots union are in the middle of negotiations on a new labor contract.

In response to the union’s comments on the proposed joint venture, Delta said it is already growing its flight capacity between the U.S. and U.K. by 15 percent in 2020, with new flights from New York’s John F. Kennedy International and Boston. One of the new flights is a daytime flight between JFK and London Heathrow.

The airline also said it has grown its trans-Atlantic departures on its own planes by 11 percent since 2013, and says that growth was enabled by the joint venture.

The union is calling for the U.S. Department of Transportation to place conditions on the proposed broader joint venture “to ensure that Delta realizes an equitable share of any JV growth.”

The Delta pilots union submitted comments to the DOT after the agency gave tentative approval earlier this month and allowed interested parties 14 days to submit comments.

Virgin Atlantic pilots who fly between the U.S. and U.K. are paid at “significantly lower rates” than Delta pilots, according to the filing by Ryan Schnitzler, master executive council chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta. And, the majority of Virgin’s U.S.-U.K. flights have two pilots instead of three on Delta, the filing says..

“Thus, in allocating joint venture capacity growth almost exclusively to Virgin, Delta has utilized the alliance mechanism to functionally reduce labor costs and circumvent the higher negotiated labor standards to which it agreed in its pilot collective bargaining agreement,” the filing says.

A Delta spokesman responded that the airline has hired about 4,000 pilots since 2013, in part to make up for attrition as pilots retire. The airline has a total of about 14,000 pilots.

The DOT said it would review review comments before making a final decision on the deal.

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About the Author

Kelly Yamanouchi
Kelly Yamanouchi
Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi covers airlines and the airport.