Airline Mergers Pushed JetBlue's Pilots to Join a Union

A JetBlue pilot after arriving at JFK airport in New York Photograph by Michael A. Jones/Sacramento Bee via Zuma Press

JetBlue’s 2,500 pilots have decided to join the nation’s largest pilots’ union, with a lopsided 71 percent majority backing unionization after two previous votes had failed. What changed this time? In a word: consolidation.

“The aviation landscape has changed dramatically, and I believe that that was the determinant for the JetBlue pilots to organize,” Air Line Pilots Association President Capt. Lee Moak said on a conference call today with reporters. His union already represents pilots at 31 airlines including Delta, United, American Eagle, Spirit, and FedEx.

JetBlue executives have steadfastly avowed no interest in joining the wave of consolidation that has swept the U.S. airline industry over the past seven years, following a spike in fuel prices and a spate of airline bankruptcies. Yet it remains an open question whether an airline like JetBlue—dependent on leisure travelers and anchored by hubs in Boston, New York, and Fort Lauderdale—can thrive on its own. This summer, in a bid to expand into business travel, JetBlue will introduce its first-ever premium cabin on lucrative routes between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But analysts largely agree with David Neeleman, the airline’s founder and former chief executive, who has argued that JetBlue’s higher costs are a clear disadvantage—and an indicator that the airline might not be on its own forever.

The pilots came to view unionization as a way “to be an equal participant at the table,” said Moak. “That’s important in Washington, and it’s very important in M&A activity. There’s a saying I’ve heard a lot in Washington that if you’re not at the table, then you’re probably on the menu. I think they decided to organize so that they were at the table.”

JetBlue no doubt considers the vote as detrimental to its effort to build a “humane” airline positioned between the expensive, full-service network airlines such as Delta, United, and American on the one side, and the Spartan no-frills carriers like Spirit and Allegiant on the other. The airline also fears a loss of flexibility in crew scheduling and other areas where it could more directly control its costs. Here’s the full statement on the vote from JetBlue CEO Dave Barger:

“The National Mediation Board will authorize ALPA as the representative body for JetBlue pilots, and then both JetBlue and ALPA will organize negotiating committees.”

There was no elaboration offered by JetBlue representatives.

In the last unionization vote in 2011, 58 percent of JetBlue pilots voted against joining the ALPA. The first vote, back in 2009, would have established an independent union of JetBlue aviators; American and Southwest also have independent pilots’ unions.

In January, with the ALPA organizing effort in full swing, JetBlue said it had agreed to raise pilots’ base pay by 20 percent by 2017. The company and its pilots will now begin work on a new contract.

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