CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — A promotional offer to captain might appear like an attractive proposition for an airline pilot, given the increased compensation and prestige. However, at United Airlines, some members of the pilots' labor union, presently engaged in prolonged contract negotiations, argue that the elevated pay and rank do not justify the personal sacrifice.

Captains co-pilot the aircraft alongside first officers, who help with navigation and scheduling. Yet, union officials state that more first officers are hesitating to step into the captain's role, fearing it could mean more spontaneous long-haul assignments and increased on-call hours.

"The pandemic shifted the attitudes of many workers towards work-life balance, and our pilot group was no exception," Garth Thompson, a captain and chair of the United unit of the Air Line Pilots Association, stated. "This could potentially start impacting the company's ambitious growth plans."

United, one of America's largest airlines, is negotiating these quality-of-life issues with its pilots' union. These talks mirror a wider pandemic trend where workers are pursuing improved working conditions along with better compensation.

According to Thompson, United currently employs 5,900 captains and 7,500 first officers. Aviation consultant Kit Darby explains that a six-year veteran first officer at the airline, who has flown wide-body jets, earns approximately $210,000 a year. A captain with six years of experience flying narrow-bodies would earn about 22% more, given the same number of flight hours.

However, the shift from senior first officer to junior captain can mean relinquishing some control over flight schedules and destinations. For some pilots, the uptick in pay does not compensate for the increased disruption to their personal lives.

San Francisco-based United first officer Quincy Fleming, who pilots Boeing 777s, explained that a promotion to captain would increase the chances of her holiday requests being denied and being required to fly on her days off.

"I'm hesitant to put myself at the bottom of any seniority list at this stage of my life," Fleming said. "I have aging parents and children who are in school."

In the near future, United plans to add 470 aircraft to its fleet. Fitch Ratings analyst Joseph Rohlena argued that United historically had no issues filling its captain positions. He dismissed concerns about a potential captain shortage impacting the airline's growth, suggesting that the company could "source pilots to match their expansion plans."

Contract discussions with United's pilots began in 2019. Last November, 94% of the union membership voted against a proposed contract. The union's priorities include providing on-call pilots more time to reach airports and relieving them from mandatory standby service at airports, along with a pay raise.

United stated that it continued to collaborate with the Air Line Pilots Association on an "industry-leading deal."

Union activity has surged since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with scheduling and workplace conditions at the core. A labor shortage has allowed unions to demand better working conditions, along with higher wages.