Bill Weil , September 14, 2015
Despite the inch of rain dumped on the city, last Thursday was a busy day in private aviation for New York. Vice President Joe Biden touched down in Air Force Two a stone’s throw away from Donald Trump’s jet, and just across the river, at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, 85 NetJets pilots walked in circles for three hours as part of a nationwide picket.
At six other airports—Columbus, Dallas, Scottsdale, Seattle-Tacoma, Van Nuys, and Palm Beach International—700 of their colleagues did the same. The pilots, who all work for the fractional jet-ownership company, picketed as part of a more than two-year-long labor dispute. The roughly 3,000 pilots who fly for the company have been working without a contract since 2013. Their union, the NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots, and NetJets blew past their self-imposed September 3 deadline for a tentative agreement.
The bristle, of course, has been over pay and benefits. The pilots’ union said salaries are not high enough and the company’s proposed changes to benefits would put them on the hook for more health-care costs. NetJets said in a statement that on economic issues, the two sides are still a long way apart.
”Much of this difference is due to the parties’ views about the economics of this business . . . as well as different expectations concerning the demand for the services we provide,” the statement read. The company then noted that the pilots’ interests have to be balanced with the commitments to other staff members and stakeholders. NetJets is a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
Captain Brian Ward, who’s been a NetJets pilot since 2002, joined the group picketing in Seattle. He’s based out of Denver, flying the eight-seat, midsize Cessna Citation X jet, working the same 14-hour days every other pilot is capped at. Like most NetJets pilots, he works seven days on, seven days off, maxing out at 98 hours on the job during the “on” weeks.
Unlike most commercial-airline pilots, Ward said, NetJets pilots have a whole other set of jobs to worry about, since the smaller private planes typically don’t have a crew. They also land in small, private-use airports that don’t always have ground support. That means NetJets pilots are not only in charge of flying passengers safely to and from a destination, but they’re also loading luggage, working with catering, making sure the plane is fueled and serviced once they land, and complying with client requests for pets to be taken care of and blankets arranged in a certain way. Add to that the fact that since NetJets customers often fly to small or private-use airports in small towns for businesses or remote resorts and vacation homes, pilots are constantly flying routes and landing at airports they’ve never flown to or landed at before. And since customers can book and change flights at the last minutes, Ward said pilots rarely know where they’re going, when they’re going, and how many places they’ll be going until right before they’re actually taking off.
“It’s a very high level of service and we’re trying to provide that experience, and because we don’t have support personnel, that work comes from the pilot. That’s stuff normal pilots wouldn’t be doing,” he said.
Yet Ward, who’s been involved with the union for years, and other union members feel like they’re not being fairly compensated for all of the extra responsibilities, which has been a huge sticking point in the contract negotiations. Ward said he makes a base salary of $132,000, though on average, makes an additional 10 percent of that in overtime and holiday pay.
Ward has been at the company for 13 years, and falls into the captain salary band. Those starting at the company, in the first-officer level, take home $57,000 in their first year, according to the union. NetJets did not respond to requests for information on pay.
The union said NetJets pilots are paid 60 percent of what commercial pilots are paid, though the company told The Wall Street Journal its pilots are some of the “best paid in the industry,” in January. At Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting in May, Buffett said NetJets pilots make an average of $145,000 per year, according to The New York Times.
The negotiation comes down to more than just pay. A major hold-up has been proposed changes to health-care coverage. NetJets told the Journal that its proposal called for a “few reasonable changes,” including “a modified health-care plan that will require union employees to contribute to premiums that they currently don’t pay.”
But those changes, however reasonable, are putting pressure on pilots like Captain Coley George, who drove five hours from Providence, Rhode Island, with a few other pilots on his week off to picket in Teterboro last week. He has been a captain with NetJets for 14 years and is also the union’s vice president of Industry Affairs. For the last two, the worry about whether his health-care costs will change, and by how much, has seeped into the home he shares with his wife and two children.
“Not knowing what my costs are going to be, you bring uncertainty into the household,” he said. “You start to think about whether [you’ll] be cutting back on your kids’ activities, putting away for college or retirement. That’s why I picketed.”
Last week’s show at airports weren’t the first. In fact, hundreds of members turned up at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting earlier this year. Before that, they picketed at the Masters Golf Tournament, the Super Bowl, and the NetJets Poker Invitational in Las Vegas, which was hosted by Buffett.
This is not a showing NetJets customers, who are typically wealthy clients looking to avoid the hassles and security headaches that go along with commercial air travel, would want to keep seeing out of their private-plane window for the unforeseeable future. One NetJets client, who did not want his name printed, said that the last thing he wants to know is that his pilot is unhappy.
Perhaps that is why NetJets continues to state its eagerness to come to a resolution. Its statement said they will again meet with the union once their mediator directs them to, and reiterated that the pilots are the “best at what [they] do” and they’re “proud to call them colleagues.”
Captain Ward doesn’t always feel that appreciation. “We’re not going to accept a contract that is subpar, that doesn’t adequately reflect our work and experience,” he said. He understands that seeing a picket line full of pilots may be disconcerting, but he hopes that will knead NetJets closer to a deal. No need to worry, however, since he said pilots are very good at compartmentalizing and trained to put emotions aside, and NetJets pilots are deeply committed to operating safely even in the midst of negotiations.
So sit back, kick your feet up on those specially arranged blankets, and enjoy the view of a hundred soaking-wet pilots earning all year what you paid in landscaping for the summer. You’ll arrive safely at your destination in just a few short hours.
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