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ABX Air Pilots Choose Cooperation Over Confrontation

Union becomes airline’s brand ambassador to win business, management’s trust.

ABX Air operates about 25 Boeing 767 converted freighters. This 767-200 variant, seen taking off from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in Arizona on Jan. 7, 2023, is 40 years old. (Photo: Shutterstock/Robin Guess)

The exhibit hall at the Omni Hotel here was filled in mid-February with booths representing airlines, logistics providers, airports, truck delivery companies and technology vendors marketing their capabilities to industry peers attending the AirCargo 2024 conference. The stall with a handful of ABX Air pilots from the Airline Professionals Association stood out.

Pilots never attend air logistics conferences, let alone rent space for a display. Why would they? They don’t have anything to sell. They fly the planes. But here was the pilots union selling a precious commodity: good will.

Friction is common between unionized labor and employers. That’s especially true in the airline industry, where contract negotiations with pilots take years and unions often raise the prospect of going on strike for better pay. The rise in tensions is currently playing out with pilots at FedEx Express and Air Transport International. Both groups have authorized leaders to call a strike if they ever exhaust strict bargaining procedures under U.S. law.

The pilots at cargo airline ABX Air are trying to break the cycle of adversarial relations in the airline industry and lay the groundwork for a favorable contract by drumming up business for the company.

“We feel that if we present a positive image with our customers at these events it will garner some recognition for our commitment to their service,” said Andrew Whobrey, a Boeing 767 freighter captain and leader in the Airline Professionals Association, in an interview. “We’re pledging that there will be no delays and we’ll do everything we can to serve the customer to the utmost of our ability.”

ABX Air operates 24 aircraft — a mix of Boeing 767-200 and 767-300 converted freighters — and has about 300 pilots. The bulk of the fleet supports DHL Express, with about four aircraft providing dedicated transport for Amazon’s air network.

ABX and Air Transport International are owned by the same company — Air Transport Services Group — but the ATI pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association.

Building a cooperative relationship with management is an approach rarely seen in the airline industry. The company’s perspective is to save money and boost shareholder returns. Pilots account for a large share of labor costs at airlines. Unions want to get as much compensation for their workers as the market will support.

Ken Jacobs, co-chair of the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, said there’s a long history of unions promoting good union employers. Hotel workers’ union Unite Here!, for example, lists good union employers on its local websites. “They want to drive people to employers that do right by their workers,” he said.

That level of collegiality is not frequently seen in the airline industry, Jacobs acknowledged.

Capt. Andrew Whobrey, a member of the ABX Executive Council, second from right. (Photo: Airforwarders Ass.)

The ABX pilots have internalized the English proverb that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. The philosophy that there is a better chance of winning over management to their contract expectations by playing nice is born from the repercussions of a work stoppage nearly eight years ago.

Pilots walked off the job days before the Black Friday shopping weekend in November 2016, forcing dozens of flights to be canceled. But a judge ordered them back to work one day later after determining the strike would cause severe economic harm.

He also rejected the union’s claim that ATSG had violated the collective bargaining agreement by not allowing pilots compensatory time or to take earned vacation after asking them to work overtime for two years.

Airlines fall under restrictive labor rules designed to prevent damage to interstate commerce that could have a widespread economic impact. Any impasse in collective bargaining has to go through a lengthy process, including mediation and arbitration, before either side can take unilateral action.

The short-lived strike raised concerns at DHL and Amazon about ABX Air’s reliability. It took several years before the express carriers requested additional flying from ABX.

Six years after the prior contract was eligible for amendment in 2014, the ABX pilots finally ratified a six-year contract on Dec. 30, 2020.

The bruises from that battle have motivated the pilots to act as brand ambassadors for ABX and ATSG.

“It was a long road to a collective bargaining agreement. It was a very lean time,” Whobrey said. “If we can help ABX grow and get business, that’s good for the pilots. Because a rising tide raises all boats.”

In addition to AirCargo 2024, the Airline Professionals Association has attended symposiums for freighter operators and manufacturers held in San Diego and Amsterdam since last summer.

The number of freighters ABX flies for Amazon has recently declined with lease expirations on 767-200s that have reached the end of their life cycle. Whobrey expressed hope that Amazon will eventually lease newer 767-300s from ATSG and place the aircraft on ABX’s operating certificate.

The collective bargaining agreement with ABX and ATSG is eligible to be updated at the start of 2026. The union pilots would look for improvements based on market conditions and for parity with peer airlines, but aren’t seeking pay scales like those at United Airlines or UPS.

“We don’t feel like we have to be the highest paid, but we don’t want to be the lowest paid,” Whobrey said.

Pilots at sister carrier Air Transport International have been locked in talks for three and a half years. Union leadership recently blamed ATSG for slow-walking negotiations until the company’s contract with Amazon is renewed in two years. Meanwhile, FedEx Express pilots last year rejected a tentative agreement and recently replaced key union leaders with ones willing to take a more uncompromising stance.

Whobrey said it makes sense for ATSG to wait and see what happens with the Amazon contract because they have to know what their potential revenue is going to be before giving pilots an increase.

He predicted other airline unions will follow the Airline Professionals Association’s path if ABX grows and economic benefits flow to the pilots.

“We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on FreightWaves

AirlineGeeks.com Staff

Author

  • Eric Kulisch

    Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips

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