Delta pilots union raises stakes in labor contract negotiations

Pilots launch a strike authorization vote, a precursor to a potential walkout amid contract negotiations

The pilots union at Delta Air Lines is raising the stakes in labor talks by starting a strike authorization vote — which does not mean a strike is planned, but is aimed at sending a message to management amid contract negotiations.

The union in August authorized a strike authorization ballot “at the appropriate time.” On Friday, it went a step further and opened the ballot, saying Delta management on Wednesday presented a proposal for pay that “falls substantially short” of expectations.

The union’s ballot will be open for voting by Delta pilots until Oct. 31.

“While approving a strike ballot does not mean a strike is imminent, it clearly sends the message that the Delta pilots are willing to go the distance to get the contract we’ve earned and deserve,” according to Jason Ambrosi, head of the Air Line Pilots Association union at Delta. Delta pilots have held informational pickets at Hartsfield-Jackson and other airports this year as they push for a new contract.

A rebound in travel since the worst of the pandemic has strained Delta and other airlines. Earlier this year, the Delta pilots union raised concerns over staffing issues, which it said caused pilots to work fatiguing schedules and more overtime, driving flight disruptions. The union wrote an open letter to customers saying the pilots shared in passengers’ frustration over delays and cancellations that proliferated early in the summer season, calling the situation “unacceptable.”

Delta issued a statement saying its pilots are not on strike, “so this authorization vote will not affect our operation for our customers.”

Ambrosi told pilots in a memo Friday that the proposal from management “does not even come close to alleviating the impact of inflation on pilot purchasing power over the thousand-plus days since the amendable date nor does it recognize the extraordinary efforts of the Delta pilots over the last several years.”

The union declined to give specifics on the proposal from management, citing National Mediation Board protocol preventing both sides from discussing details related to pay or compensation proposals until there is a tentative agreement.

“This is a common NMB practice during the end-game of most mediated negotiations,” Ambrosi wrote. The National Mediation Board is handling mediation in the Delta pilots’ contract talks.

Ambrosi in his memo asked pilots to support the strike authorization ballot to send a message to management that Delta pilots “will not stand for meager economic proposals.”

“Your Negotiating Committee would not ask for a vote in favor unless this additional leverage was needed to get our negotiations over the finish line,” he added. “With the compensation proposal management just slid across the table, there is no indication that Delta values its pilots as the best in the industry, or recognition that Delta is significantly more profitable than its competitors.”

Voting to authorize a strike would not necessarily mean a strike would happen. First, the pilots union would have to clear a number of hurdles to be able to strike under the Railway Labor Act that governs airline labor relations.

Delta said negotiations will continue to progress.

“Delta and ALPA have made significant progress in our negotiations and have resolved more than the majority of contract sections,” the company said in a written statement. “We are confident that the parties will reach a consensual deal that is fair and equitable, as we always have in past negotiations.”