By: Ryan Schnitzler, MEC Vice Chairman
In 1991, the German band Scorpions released “Wind of Change” with lyrics focused on the sociopolitical changes sweeping across Europe at the time. I’m not suggesting that you follow me to Gorky Park, but I do believe that the future is in the air and we can feel it everywhere. The airline industry is going through a period of sweeping change.
The pressures of globalization are being felt with full force: fleet changes, airlines buying financial stakes in one another, growing alliances through codeshares and joint ventures. The Boeing 747, once the queen of the fleet, has taken her final bow, and the MD88s are soon to follow as we welcome the A350 and A220. Demographics of the piloting profession are changing, too, as one generation approaches retirement and a younger generation, with different perspectives, joins our ranks
Whether we like it or not, the transformation to a global economy will continue. Our pilot group must accept that reality and get creative in protecting our interests going forward. We need to ask ourselves what Delta Air Lines will look like in 10, 20 or even 50 years. Where do we think Delta is heading? Should we expect further JVs? What if foreign ownership laws change? Will we still be Delta or could we end up being SkyTeam Airlines? What if a foreign airline bought Delta and merged us into their operation? What if we became just a contractor for a larger conglomerate, like so many cargo carriers around the world? We must consider these questions as we determine how our union and pilot group will function — and how we deal with the Company — in the coming years.
We are still in the early stages of an epic retirement wave with more than 1,000 new pilots joining the seniority list each year to take their place. During many of our careers, it was very much a ‘seller’s market’ for pilot jobs. Airlines could afford to be choosy. Now we see a very strong ‘buyer’s market,’ likely to get even stronger, as evidenced by programs like Delta’s own Propel. Boeing recently published the results of a study suggesting that a staggering 117,000 airline pilot jobs will need to be filled in North America through 2036. Globally, that number rises to 637,000.
The regional airline industry is slowly coming to terms with the change in market conditions, reacting with signing and retention bonuses. Soon, legacy carriers will be forced to address the changing market, giving us the leverage for PWA changes needed to attract pilots from a limited pool over American, United and other major carriers of choice. Once we realize that leverage, we must have the nerve to see it through. That is fundamental to negotiating a strong agreement.
The opportunity to temper the Company’s JV appetite was missed multiple times over the last two decades as union leadership weren’t thinking of the extensive use of JVs when they negotiated the scope language that exists in our current PWA. Now we must analyze and prepare for the threats of the next evolution of globalization and ensure we have protections in place to defend the Delta pilots’ livelihoods for decades to come.
The changes we are experiencing cannot be stopped. To find the best path to deal with these changes, we can look to a line in “Wind of Change”: “…that we could be so close, like brothers.” We as a pilot group need to put divisiveness aside, come together like brothers and sisters, and think creatively to solve the challenges ahead. We should ask tough questions, but not be critical of one another. Imagination is necessary to solve the challenges of scope in a global economy. Our older pilots need to respect the fresh ideas of the younger pilots, and our younger pilots need to respect the experience of the older pilots. We must learn to put our personal differences aside and come together for a unified effort. We have struggled to do that in the past, but have a huge opportunity to unite and present a strong voice in the upcoming negotiating cycle. Only then will we find the “magic of the moment.”