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New United Airlines Pilot Union Leader Has A Tough Act To Follow

Date: January 18, 2022

By Ted Reed, Forbes

It goes without saying that Todd Insler is a tough act to follow.

Nevertheless, Mike Hamilton will take over March 1 as chairman of the United Airlines chapter of the Air Lines Pilots Association, following his election by chapter’s 19-member executive council. The 13,700 United pilots comprise ALPA’s largest chapter: Insler has been a visible and influential leader during a tumultuous time.

Insler stepped down due to term limits after three terms. Hamilton, his executive administrator, “is the perfect person to finish the work we started,” Insler said.  

Hamilton, 50 is a Denver- based 767-777 captain who joined United in 1997 after a stint as an Air Midwest pilot. A Denver-area resident who has long been involved with the union, he was a Chicago-based local representative on Sept. 11: secretary-treasurer for the MEC during United’s bankruptcy, and executive administrator during the pandemic.

Hamilton’s ascent is the first uncontentious transfer of power to MEC chairman in at least 25 years. In January 2020, Insler was unanimously re-elected to his third term. He led the union through a series of crises, seeming to gain stature with each step.

At the end, United and its ALPA chapter were at the center of the pandemic, as the carrier was among the most prominent U.S. companies to require vaccinations. United CEO Scott Kirby said last week that while the company had about 3,000 employees who tested positive for Covid-19, no vaccinated employee has died or been recently hospitalized with the disease. About 200 of 67,000 employees were fired for not complying with the mandate, United said.

“United would not have made it through this pandemic without ALPA,” Insler said. “Scott has said that repeatedly: he has thanked ALPA for getting us through this. We believe in science. When the company wanted to mandate vaccines, we incented pilots and diminished the number who wouldn’t take it.”

The primary incentive for pilots to be vaccinated, negotiated by ALPA, was 13 hours of paid time. Insler said 300 pilots accepted leaves “until pandemic levels become manageable” while twelve were fired for noncompliance and are being represented by ALPA’s legal department.

Looking back, Insler recalled, “My predecessor told me I would coast through my term, but there’s been no such thing.

“On day one, my wife had cancer,” he said. “My father died on day two. On days three and four, we had a proxy fight. We supported Oscar; he brought in Scott. We had the grounding of the Max. Then there was the pandemic, the biggest black swan event in the history of the industry,” Kirby replaced Oscar Munoz as CEO in May 2020.

During the pandemic, “We were the only carrier to negotiate permanent improvements to our (pilot) contract,” Insler said. “(ALPA) saved thousands of pilot families during the pandemic, and now I can sleep well knowing that Mike is at the helm.”

Additionally, during Insler’s term, United ALPA boosted its presence in airline labor, communicating regularly with media and membership, speaking out on industry issues and taking a role in the powerful labor coalition that – working in consort with the airlines —brough $54 billion in pandemic relief to the industry. The money kept tens of thousands of employees working when few passengers were flying, enabling a restoration – not without some hiccups – when passengers returned.

During his tenure, Insler reflected, “It’s kind of mind-boggling what took place. We pumped out thousands of new captains; we fixed long-term disability, got a 5% pay raise, closed out open grievances, and now we have a new class of pilots every week: there are 72 this week. But we’re not done yet. We have to close out the contract.”

The contract became amendable in January 2019; talks were interrupted by the pandemic. “We were building momentum for a contract, we were pretty far along, but Covid set us back,” Hamilton said. “Now, we’re trying to set a long-term strategy and build off the momentum we have. Todd’s a tough act to follow, but I will work with the MEC to make sure pilots are unified.”

While many issues are settled, tough issues including compensation and the scope clause —which determines how much flying can be outsourced – remain. The recent shrinking of regional jet fleets at United and throughout the industry has theoretically eased the scope conflict.

Meanwhile, Newark-based Insler has moved to Boeing 787 captain from Boeing 767 captain. At 53, he plans to continue with union work.

Insler said he believes Kirby has come to recognize the value of working with ALPA. “We can be an exceptionally strong ally or an exceptionally strong adversary,” he said. “I believe United has learned that it is better to have us as an ally.”

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