Delta pilots picket at Hartsfield-Jackson, seeking a new labor pact

Pilots say they haven’t had raises in three years; Delta wants a contract that promotes a strong balance sheet

Hundreds of off-duty Delta Air Lines pilots picketed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday as part of a months-long push for a new labor contract.

It’s part of a nationwide day of picketing by the Air Line Pilots Association union by pilots from several airlines at a dozen major airports around the country ahead of Labor Day weekend. Delta said it expects to handle 2.9 million passengers over the Labor Day travel period, up from 2.5 million last year but still shy of the 3.1 million in the same period of 2019.

The pilots for Atlanta-based Delta say it has been more than three years since they’ve had a pay raise. The Air Line Pilots Association started contract negotiations in 2019, paused them during the pandemic and restarted talks in January 2022.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Thursday’s action is the third round of protests by Delta pilots this year.

Delta issued a statement saying: “These exercises by some of our off-duty pilots do not disrupt our operation for our customers. ALPA’s stated purpose of picketing is simply to gain leverage at the negotiating table.”

The union, which represents Delta’s 14,400 pilots, is pushing for higher pay, better retirement benefits and work rules.

“It’s not just pay, it’s quality of life,” said Delta pilots union head Jason Ambrosi. He said pilots have been working record amounts of overtime this summer to operate the airline’s scheduled flights.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Delta and other airlines have had a tumultuous summer rife with mass flight cancellations on some of the heaviest days of operations, frustrating travelers who have endured delays of hours or days, missed trips or lost bags.

The delays and cancellations also wreak havoc on pilots’ work schedules, Ambrosi said.

“Every time there’s a change in the schedule, it’s incredibly inefficient,” he said, leaving pilots sitting and waiting in the airport for a delayed flight or getting rerouted to another airport to work. And, a one-day trip can turn into two or three days. The disruptions exacerbate crew scheduling issues, which can then snowball into even more flight cancellations.

“It’s frustrating. It’s fatiguing,” particularly when pilots get rerouted to different time zones with disrupted sleep schedules, Ambrosi said.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian, in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week, said the airline has 91% as many active pilots as it had in 2019, while flying only 86% as many departures as it had in 2019. However, the influx of hundreds of new pilots each month and the need to train new and existing pilots on new aircraft types has strained staffing of the airline’s flight schedule, Delta has said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

While the pilots are picketing, they are not on strike. Mediated contract talks between the union and Delta management are ongoing this week for a new contract. Pilots have not yet taken a strike vote, and would need to clear a series of hurdles before they would be authorized to strike under the Railway Labor Act.

Delta said it aims to negotiate an “industry-leading overall contract with the best compensation based on pay, retirement and profit sharing,” that also has contract language to support its operation, maintains a strong balance sheet, and invests in the business.