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Horizon pilots vent frustrations

Fed-up Horizon Air pilots say Alaska Air Group created the conditions leading to a pilot shortage that resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations.

Medford travelers have seen flights to Seattle cancelled and the Los Angeles route scrapped in recent months.

Horizon Air pilots, who fly Q-400 turbo-props serving small and medium markets, took their frustrations public, sending an open letter to Alaska Air Group's Chairman and CEO Brad Tilden and the company's board. The letter is scheduled to run in a full-page advertisement in Saturday's Seattle Times.

In a nutshell, the union said many pilots are retiring throughout the industry, while too few are joining the ranks, and Alaska wasn't taking necessary steps to reverse the trend.

"We are deeply concerned about the future of our airline and the crucial service it provides to communities throughout the Pacific Northwest," the letter signed by the Horizon Air Pilots Executive Council. "The high cost and lengthy training required to become a pilot have worsened the economics of our profession, making the career all but impossible for many aspiring aviators."

Despite improved compensation, most aspiring pilots incur large student debts upward of $150,000. It also takes years as a low-wage flight instructor before qualifying for annual pay of $40,000 per year working for airlines such as Horizon, the pilots said. From there, it takes Horizon pilots 18 years to reach the maximum pay grade of $125,000.

Alaska created its own headwind as far back as 2012, said Greg Unterseher, director of representation for Teamsters Local 1224.

"The entire industry was moving one direction to accept pilots, while Alaska Air Group was going another direction," Unterseher said. "Alaska always believed it would be able to attract pilots."

Alaska converted all of its Horizon routes to Q-400s several years ago to reduce costs. But competitive factors came into play, and Alaska asked the union for a new contract. But the pilots didn't flock to Horizon, as management had hoped.

"It was a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face," Unterseher said.

Horizon management asked pilots to accept pay cuts and other concessions last year to compete with another airline for outsourced routes flying from Alaska Airlines. In return for concessions, Horizon and Alaska Air Group guaranteed the pilots Horizon would become the exclusive operator for more than 30 new regional jets.

"With the ink on the contract barely dry, Horizon became unable to adequately staff and operate the airline — precisely as we had warned," the pilots wrote. "In effect, Horizon’s attempt to cut costs had backfired; the airline had lower pilot costs, yes, but lower costs also meant that the airline could not recruit and retain scarce pilots."

Recently, Horizon announced service reductions, deferred aircraft deliveries, and that SkyWest would fly new aircraft on contract for Alaska Airlines, something the pilots said was a flagrant violation of their 2016 agreement.

Horizon pilots said short-term fixes won't help, and Alaska needs to present a long-term plan. They said it was important to retain senior pilots and develop training for the next generation. The pilots also said Alaska needs to break from corporate orthodoxy that says the market will solve the problem.

"The market is not solving this problem," they wrote.

Unterseher said community leaders in the Rogue Valley need to ask Alaska about its plan.

"Alaska's inability to recognize market conditions was shown by Delta's invasion of Seattle, and then having to make a defensive move and spend well above the market price for Virgin America," he said.

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

An Alaska Airlines plane prepares for takeoff from the Medford airport. [Mail Tribune file photo]