Buried in a deal between United Airlines and its pilots to avoid furloughs is a new threat to elite upgrades: deadheading pilots will soon outrank even top-tier frequent flyers on the upgrade waitlist.
United Pilots Ink Deal To Avoid Furloughs
Last month, United and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union which represents United pilots, tentatively agreed on a deal that reduced minimum hours (and thereby pay) for pilots in exchange for avoiding furloughs for eight months and tightening the scope clause on regional jets, setting the limit at 70 seats instead of 76. The agreement also gives pilots a 5% instant pay raise once United reaches a 5% profit margin and a generous new early buyout option for more senior pilots.
Todd Insler, Chairman of United ALPA, told Forbes:
“This deal provides for the long-term safety and protection of our pilots careers, while at the same time improving our contract…this is pilots helping pilots.
“This is us internally making the decision to allow our pilots to help themselves. At some point the company will grow and be successful again, but right now we have to help our people. We have each other’s backs. How we can turn our backs on them when they need it the most?”
Late last month, pilots overwhelmingly ratified the deal.
United Pilots Will Displace Elites On Upgrade Waitlist
As noted by View from the Wing, there was another concession buried in the agreement: easier access to first class seats for deadheading pilots.
You can read the previous agreement here. For in-line deadheading (meaning a pilot is flying to or from a duty assignment on United), it does not guarantee premium cabin seating on flights under eight hours and specifically states:
Regardless of the class of service booked, pilots may be upgraded to a higher class of service at the gate after the Company has accommodated all other passenger upgrades.
On flights of three hours or less, pilots were seated in economy class. On flights between three and eight hours, pilots were booked in business/first class if available, subject to the limitation above if the premium cabin was already full. Flights over eights hours were guaranteed business class.
Live and Let’s Fly obtained a copy of the 28-page new agreement and careful reviewed it. The pertinent language concerning upgrades is on page 14 under a section titled “Permanent UPA Changes.” (UPA is United Pilot Agreement). Section 5-C-1 states:
When On-Line deadheading on a Basic Flight, a Pilot shall be booked positive space in First Class, if available at time of booking. If First Class is not available, the Pilot shall be booked as outlined below, but shall be upgraded automatically (in seniority order within Status and ahead of all upgrading passengers) if a First Class seat becomes available. However, a Pilot shall not be eligible for such automatic upgrade if the deadhead booking occurs at or within three (3) hours of flight Departure, in which case upgrades will be processed in accordance with Section 5-C-1-d.
Regardless of the class of service booked and unless specified elsewhere in this Agreement, Pilot upgrades will be processed in accordance with Company Business Travel policy.
The “Company Business Travel Policy” places deadheading pilots behind company officers, board members, revenue passengers, managing directors, and directors in terms of upgrade priority (in that order).
To summarize: deadheading pilots traveling to or from a work assignment on United metal will be booked in first or business class no matter what the flight length is. If the front cabin is full, they will take waitlist priority over all revenue passengers, including MileagePlus elites, as long as they book more than three hours ahead of the flight. If they book within three hours, they will be ranked behind revenue passengers on the upgrade waitlist. This does not include commuters (those who live away from their base by choice), but would typically be for reserve pilots needed at another station.
What about when a premium cabin is oversold?
5-C-1-e In the event of an oversold situation (including an equipment substitution that results in fewer available premium seats), a deadheading Pilot booked in First or Business Class will not be downgraded until after all passengers who received a free upgrade (that is, passengers who used neither dollars nor miles for the upgrade) are downgraded and after all pass riders who received an upgrade are downgraded. Then, downgrades will be made in inverse positive space priority (and in inverse boarding date order among Pilots having the same priority). Revenue passengers (whether using dollars or miles) will not be downgraded before the Pilot. In no case shall a Pilot be downgraded to accommodate a passenger who would receive a free upgrade.
Note that United will downgrade MileagePlus elites who receive complimentary upgrades first, then pilots, then “revenue” passengers who paid for the upgrade with dollars or miles. The clause is silent on elites who use PlusPoints to upgrade.
United will also pay pilots a 50% bonus if they end up in a middle seat.
Why I’m Against This Change
As a top-tier 1K flyer on United, I certainly appreciate my upgrades. Indeed, that’s a huge selling point of loyalty and a top reason why I concentrate loyalty into one carrier over others.
I’m just going to be blunt and say that I want the upgrade over the pilot. Call me selfish…because that is selfish. But I also think it is reasonable. In fact, I don’t think it is ever reasonable for pilots to take upgrades from passengers who likely fly more than they do and pay their salaries by spending thousands of dollars per year in order to secure elite status. Upgrades are part of the deal…a reward for loyalty, not a “free” giveaway.
But fine, it is what it is. Pilots had this benefit back in the “employee-owned” United days of the 1990s and lost it during the 2002 bankruptcy. It understandable they want it back and impressive they negotiated successfully for it.
However, if premium cabins on United start filling up with pilots, expect an elite revolt. I hope United has mechanisms in place to ensure that pilots do not abuse this new benefit for commuting or non-revving. I hope any pilot who is caught abusing this generous new contract provision will face immediate termination. (yeah right…)
Insler noted, “Through pilot unity and resolve, we will leave a lasting legacy for future generations of United pilots.”
Indeed, this is a great deal for pilot and I applaud pilots for coming together in a spirit of shared sacrifice (unlike flight attendants) to protect their more junior colleagues.
But those new upgrades perks…ugh. Make no mistake, this constitutes a devaluation to elite status in MileagePlus.
image: United Airlines