United Pilots To Get Priority Over Upgrades For First Class Seats

As part of an agreement struck between United Airlines and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), United pilots will enjoy priority on first class seating upgrades. United pilots will now benefit from permanent, positive space first class deadheads with priority over paying customers.

United pilots will now be first in line for first class seating onboard United flights. Photo: Getty Images

This perk has been a long-term pilots union goal stretching back over a decade. United Airlines made the concession, amongst other changes, to avoid furloughing almost 3,000 employees.

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How the priority system works

Airline employees will often travel off-duty aboard flights to reach their next work destination, a practice known as ‘deadheading’. As reported today in A View From The Wing, the recent agreement means United pilots will be first in line for upgrades to first class seating.

First class seating onboard a United Airlines CRJ550 plane. Photo: United Airlines

For most airlines, passengers willing to pay to upgrade to first class would usually take priority. Under the new arrangement, pilots have stand-by eligibility for upgrades ahead of customers willing to shell out extra to sit in first class.

Will this affect business?

In the current climate, demand for first class seats is at an all-time low. There simply aren’t enough passengers traveling by air, so the immediate financial impact of the new priority system will be minimal. However, once the travel industry returns to pre-COVID conditions, United Airlines will almost certainly suffer due to the decision financially.

United Airlines is only operating at around 40% of its pre-COVID levels. Photo: United Airlines

The news may lead to a drop in customer satisfaction, especially amongst elite-level passengers finding their upgrade options are now more limited. With fewer first class seats available, premium travelers may look elsewhere. United pilots are in luck with recent changes, after the airline announced it is upgrading the quality of its first class meals.

Details of other changes

United Airlines and ALPA reached a number of other agreements which will have a substantial impact on future policy. Firstly, pilots will get a wage increase once the airline returns to a zone of profitability. This deal was struck in exchange for a reduction in minimum pilot hours, enabling United Airlines to keep more pilots employed and minimize training costs.

Several important changes were agreed upon by United and ALPA. Photo: United Airlines

The union also successfully bargained for tighter scope restrictions for United’s regional airline (United Express) during the talks. As part of the agreement, pilot furloughing has been suspended until June 2021 after the airline initially planned a mass furlough by Oct 1. As United spokesman Frank Benenati explained:

“Our pilots are voting right now on a tentative agreement that, if approved, would avoid all pilot furloughs for at least nine months,”

The future of United Airlines

The latest changes have averted a potential disaster for United Airlines by preventing a PR nightmare and keeping pilots happy. As United pilot union Chairman Captain Todd Insler said in a statement:

“This agreement underscores our commitment to all 13,000 United pilots and represents the importance of creative solutions needed to mitigate massive layoffs for our pilots.

United Airlines previously said that up to 36,000 employees could be furloughed. Photo: United Airlines

Despite the welcome news for pilots, United Airlines is still going ahead with furloughing 13,000 staff including flight attendants and airport staff. In a recent message to its staff, the airline stated:

“To our departing 13,000 family members: thank you for your dedication and we look forward to welcoming you back.”

Do you agree with the changes United Airlines has made? Let us know in the comments.

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