Delta, pilots union at loggerheads over cost cuts

Delta Air Lines and its pilots union are at loggerheads over how to cut costs as travel plummets due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The union reached a deal last month to offer pilots voluntary time off at reduced pay. Meanwhile, Delta has asked tens of thousands of other employees, who are not unionized, to volunteer for unpaid leave.

As travel continued to decline with border closures and steep drops in travel demand, Delta has looked to further cut payroll expenses.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian has asked flight attendants, customer service agents and others to volunteer for longer terms of unpaid leave, up to a year. The company has also cut pay by 25% through reduced hours for ground workers and merit employees.

Late last month, Delta management asked the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta to consider allowing the company to reduce pilots' guaranteed pay by 20%, which would amount to an involuntary pay cut.

The union responded that it would not agree to the involuntary pay cut and offered other voluntary forms of relief to the company.

Management says it now no longer wants to offer pilots time off at reduced pay.

Delta senior vice president of flight operations John Laughter wrote in a memo to pilots that management does not “think it’s right or consistent with Delta’s values” to offer paid leave to pilots “when more than 27,000 of your Delta colleagues are taking unpaid leave.”

The move comes as unions seek to organize Delta employees, particularly flight attendants, who are non-union and among those taking unpaid leave.

Offering paid leave to the unionized pilots could highlight the difference between treatment of union and non-union workers -- and could thus sharpen an argument for unionization of other workers.

"I believe they want the unionized workforce to agree to similar cuts or face potential backlash with the non-contract groups in the future," Delta pilots union chairman Ryan Schnitzler told members in a memo. Delta has argued against unionization of flight attendants and other workers.

Airline employees are girding for cuts in the future.

Schnitzler wrote that although there are some protections against involuntary furloughs in the union's contract and in the federal stimulus for airlines for a period of time, "I would be remiss, however, if I did not highlight the importance of being conservative with your cash flow over the next several months and building savings if you have not already done so."