If you’re a United frequent flyer, you might miss your next first class upgrade because of a pilot, not another paying passenger.
United & Pilots reached an agreement to avoid vacation
Recently, United Airlines and their pilots union reached an agreement that avoids any vacation days for pilots until at least June 2021. Previously, 2,850 pilots should be on leave from October 2020 when the first round of CARES Act funding expired. 58% of the pilots voted for this new agreement.
As you’d expect, there are some compromises on both sides:
- The pilots had to agree on limited flying hours so that the limited available flying could be distributed among many more pilots (which means a significant reduction in wages for many pilots).
- As soon as United again achieves a profit margin of at least 5%, the pilots will receive a one-time salary increase of 5%.
- Pilots temporarily have an improved scope clause that limits the amount of flights that regional airlines can operate on behalf of airlines
But there is one other change that I wasn’t initially aware of that could have long-term implications for United frequent flyers.
United Airlines has managed to avoid pilot holidays for the time being
United pilots are now given First Class when they are dead
View from the Wing shares this tidbit from JP Morgan’s Jamie Morgan:
“Pilots also hit permanent, positive-seat first-class deadheads who were ready before paying passengers to meet a union goal that goes back at least a decade (and effectively a devaluation of the frequent flyer elite benefits that Travel bloggers haven’t picked on – yet). “
In other words, United Airlines pilots who are at a dead end are now receiving prime seats in front of any frequent flyer attempting to upgrade. Frequent flyers can upgrade in a number of ways, from redeeming miles to receiving free upgrades for available space within a few days of departure.
Here are some things to clarify:
- Deadheading is when pilots travel as passengers to position themselves somewhere as part of a trip (in other words, a Chicago-based pilot has his first flight from San Francisco, so must travel from Chicago to San Francisco).
- This is different from the commute, where a pilot is stationed at an airport but chooses to live in another city and then has to commute to base (commuting is a choice while deadheading is part of a standard “trip”) can pilot)
- For short-haul flights, in the past, pilots have only received First Class based on available space after all other eligible customers have completed upgrades. Given the number of passengers eligible for upgrades, first class upgrades for pilots were extremely rare
United pilots now have first class in front of frequent flyers when they’re dead
Is this policy change unreasonable?
I believe that with this change, United will be the only major U.S. airline that gives pilots on non-long haul flights first class space in first class (usually when a flight exceeds a certain length, pilots on all airlines get positive space in a premium cabin). .
I can see both sides of it. My main problems are the following:
- It looks bad – no matter what industry you’re in, it doesn’t look good if you’re denied something (in this case, an upgrade) and given it to an employee instead
- This is a permanent change so in the long run upgrades may be more difficult in some situations
- Taxpayers have given airlines billions in payroll assistance, and this is a time when the airline is putting in place an objectively customer-unfriendly policy
The argument on the other hand is:
- Pilots are qualified professionals. Just as others earn elite status through their travel, it is not inappropriate for pilots to receive similar perks
- It makes sense that pilots can rest when they find themselves at a dead end, as they may then be piloting a flight where they have the lives of others in their hands
- The pilots finally have a chance to negotiate what they wanted so they’d be foolish not to do it
If you see some pilots in uniform in first class on your next United flight, even though many people were on the upgrade list, now you know why. As part of the ongoing negotiations, the pilots succeeded in securing a positive place in first class in first class, whereas previously they only reached first class after everyone on the upgrade list had been clarified.
This will no doubt lead to some situations where pilots go top notch while those on the upgrade list don’t.
What do you think of United pilots who are now getting world-class upgrades before other passengers?