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Business/Economy

As major airlines hike pilot pay, Alaska Airlines boosts wages

SEATTLE — Pilot pay at the major U.S. airlines is soaring as unions strengthened by a pilot shortage nail down gold-plated contracts.

So thanks to a no-one-left-behind clause in the contract agreed to last fall, Alaska Airlines pilots on Sept. 1 will get an 11.2% pay jump to keep up with wages at rival airlines, instead of the 4% minimum stipulated in last year’s deal.

In a message to the airline’s 3,600 pilots, Capt. Dave Mets, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, called the upward wage adjustment “another huge investment” by the company.

“This fantastic news combined with our aircraft order book, future growth plans and industry leading financial strength and stability further solidifies your careers and your family’s long-term security,” Mets told the pilots.

Will McQuillen, a captain and the chair of the Air Line Pilots Association’s Alaska unit, said the union’s members are pleased with the outcome.

“It’s very competitive and reflects a commitment by management to attract and retain pilots and to want to compete” with rival airlines, McQuillen said.

Almost a year ago, Alaska Airlines was the first major airline to agree to a deal with its pilot union. That three-year contract boosted pay by up to 23%. From Sept. 1, top-of-the-scale captain pay was set at $306 per flying hour.

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The contract stipulated that on Sept. 1 this year that would rise to $318.24 per hour. Instead, it’s jumping to $340.25 per hour.

Pay rates for all the lower steps on the pay scale for captains and first officers will all be adjusted upward in parallel by a minimum of 11.2%.

The new wage hike fulfills a commitment in last year’s Alaska contract with ALPA that management would raise pay as required to ensure its most senior captains earned the average of their peers flying Boeing 737 MAXs and Airbus A321neos at United, American, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue.

The idea was “we were never going to be left behind again,” said McQuillen.

To retain talent, all the majors have been forced to include a similar “market rate adjustment” clause in their contracts.

Only Southwest among the listed Alaska competitors has not yet ratified a new pilot contract.

In January, JetBlue agreed to a two-year contract extension that provided a compensation increase of 21.5% over 18 months. In March, Delta agreed on a pilot contract that increases wages 34% by 2026. In July, United Airlines pilots agreed to a pilot contract that would increase pay up to 40% over four years.

And this month, American agreed to a similar 40% pay boost over its new four-year contract.

In recent weeks, Alaska management in negotiations with ALPA agreed to drop the Southwest comparison for now and align its pay with the average among the others.

That leaves Alaska’s senior captains only slightly behind the pay rates for Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 captains at the three biggest airlines — American, Delta and United — who now earn $343.66 per hour.

These big wage hikes come at a time when workers in many industries are pushing to raise wages, giving labor a resurgence in power and negotiating strength that had been diminishing for years.

Among labor groups, pilots have one of the strongest hands to play in negotiations. U.S. air traffic has recovered to levels now higher than before the pandemic, yet the shortage of pilots has constrained airline growth.

“It is 100% a market that is very different than the one when I started this career in 1995,” said McQuillen.

Back then, almost three decades ago, as a new first officer at Alaska’s regional subsidiary Horizon Air, McQuillen said his pay was $19.02 per hour. He’ll now get the $340.25 per hour top-of-the-scale captain rate.

And on Sept. 1 next year the contract ensures that will go up a minimum of 4% to $353.86 per hour.

If Southwest were to come to an even more lucrative agreement with its pilots before then, that rate potentially could be bumped even higher.

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