Last week, a top Alaska Airlines executive walked slowly past about three dozen protesting pilots, stopping briefly to engage with each one, before she entered a building where she was about to speak.
The Feb. 3 incident, near the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan, was disturbing to pilots. They were arrayed side by side, holding protest signs, wearing masks, not saying anything.
To some, the actions of Constance von Muehlen, the carrier’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, had the appearance of being an intimidating stare down. David Campbell, one of the picketing pilots, was put off by the picket line interaction. “It’s hard to imagine she was doing that with a friendly intent,” he said.
†[But] I don’t know what was in her head,” said Campbell, a Seattle-based Boeing 737 who is communications chairman for the Alaska chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association.
Alaska spokeswoman Alexa Rudin said von Muehlen was just saying hello. “She was having a conversation; she knew some of them,” Rudin said. “By no means was she doing a stare down. If you listen closely, you can hear Constance say hello to each pilot.”
The event was captured in a YouTube video.
Von Muehlen, also masked, entered the Yale Club to speak at the Wings Club February lunch, where it was “important to Constance to acknowledge with a friendly hello all those in attendance from the Alaska team, whether our pilots, our airports, network or lease teams,” Rudin said.
Will McQuillen, chairman of the Alaska ALPA chapter, said Von Muehlen’s staring “was perceived by many as an attempt to intimidate.
“She paused and stared intently,” he said. “The pilots felt uncomfortable.”
“I can’t speak to her intent: I can only speak to how people received the interaction,” said McQuillen, who was not on the picket line at the time.
In a few instances, Von Muehlen appeared to voice a few words: McQuillen said she was saying “good morning” in a flat tone. “It was an odd choice of a way to engage with pilots,” he said.
Von Muehlen joined Alaska Air Group in 2017. She was named executive vice president and chief operating officer in 2019. She also oversees ground services subsidiary McGee Air Services. In the 1990s, she flew Black Hawk helicopters for the US Army.
For the ALPA leaders, Von Muehlen’s approach characterizes the carrier’s approach to contract negotiations that have been underway since 2019.
Talks started about a year before the contract became amendable April 1, 2020. A mediator joined the talks last fall. Bargaining resumes Wednesday in Seattle.
Key issues for the 3,100 Alaska pilots are scope, scheduling, and salary.
Regarding scope, McQuillen said pilots feel hamstrung by the contract. Alaska Air Group owns Alaska Air and regional carrier Horizon Air. Alaska uses both Horizon and SkyWest Airlines in some markets.
“We have very limited scope protection,” said McQuillen, a Seattle-based 737 captain. Alaska “has two regional partners and they can grow markets, unfettered, with either one.
“We simply have never been able to get the company to agree to (move),” he said. The last contract, in 2013, generally retained scope language from the 2009 contract, he said, and the carrier has indicated an unwillingness to make significant changes.
In a prepared statement, Alaska said, “We have a unique business model that has enabled us to outgrow the industry every year. This model relies on partnerships with other airlines (both regional and international) to achieve this growth that fuels our success.”
The carrier said it has proposed contract language saying that “any aircraft the size of Embraer 190/Airbus 220 or larger would be flown by mainline pilots. We have also committed to including pay rates for this size aircraft in the contract.”
Meanwhile, McQuillen said that Alaska trails other carriers in pilot scheduling, which is also an issue in ongoing contract talks at the three global US airlines. “Pilots at a lot of the other major carriers can move schedules around, which accommodates a good life balance,” he said. “Here, it only exists on paper.”
In negotiations, “We are focused on effective problem solving,” McQuillen said. “What we are seeking is in place at nearly every other major carrier.”
In its statement, Alaska said, “We are committed to reaching an agreement on a new contract that supports our pilots through a better work life balance, more flexibility, better benefits and increased pay. To date we have provided the union with proposals that support our commitment.”
Last week, Alaska reported a fourth quarter net profit of $18 million, compared with a net loss of $447 million in the same quarter a year earlier.