ALPA Objects To ‘Alarming Increase’ in U.S. Visas for Pilots

 - November 16, 2022, 3:39 PM
A Delta Air Lines Airbus A350 touches down at Tokyo Haneda Airport. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-SA) by SJByles)

The Air Line Pilots Association again has raised objections to what it calls airlines' improper use of U.S. work visas to recruit foreign temporary pilots and shift flying away from U.S. aviation workers. The most recent complaint stems from the removal of a clause in the Department of Transportation's approval of a joint venture agreement between Delta Air Lines and LATAM that ALPA claims ensured U.S. pilots and other workers “a fair and equitable share of growth in flying.”

In a statement released Tuesday, ALPA cited an “alarming” increase in pilot positions certified by the Department of Labor to allow employer sponsorship of H1-B and E-3 visas for “specialty occupations.” The “specialty occupation” designation denotes a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in the specialty as a prerequisite for employment. According to ALPA, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Administrative Appeals Office has repeatedly determined that the piloting profession does not qualify as a specialty occupation.

At last week’s AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD) Executive Committee meeting, member unions adopted a policy statement calling on the government to ensure airlines do not exploit existing visa programs to displace U.S. pilots with foreign workers and undermine collective bargaining rights.

“ALPA and the TTD are perplexed by the Department of Transportation’s decision to remove this pro-labor clause in the Delta-LATAM joint venture,” said ALPA president Joe DePete. “As ALPA and the AFL-CIO explained, their rationale is at odds with the Biden Administration’s otherwise unambiguous pro-worker agenda and reflects a longstanding preference for nonlabor interests when it comes to international aviation. We had hoped the department would be more supportive of such employee clauses and support ALPA’s efforts to protect U.S. airline employees and level the playing field for labor in the international arena, as promised.”

In a June 23 letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, DePete and Spirit Airlines ALPA unit chairman Ryan Muller called on the DHS to help prevent U.S. airlines from “misusing” the specialty occupation visa designation.

“Despite a verifiable excess of available, qualified pilots in the United States, Spirit Airlines is actively seeking to recruit pilots from Australia using the E-3 visa program,” said the letter. “ALPA is calling on DHS to help set precedent that airline pilot positions are not classified as a ‘specialty occupation’ and coordinate closely with the Department of State to ensure that E-3 reviewers are aware of such precedent.”

ALPA characterizes the airlines’ efforts to recruit foreign pilots “as nothing more than [an effort] to undercut U.S. workers and their collective bargaining power” and part of a larger campaign to weaken aviation safety rules by reducing pilot training. “While there are clearly workforce challenges in all sectors of the transportation industry, for airline pilots there are actually more than enough pilots to meet demand, according to the FAA’s own pilot production data,” said DePete. “However, some airlines, that do not offer appropriate compensation and quality-of-life conditions, are having difficulty retaining pilots. That’s not a reason to misuse the U.S. visa program and undermine U.S. workers.”

The trade group representing Delta and six other U.S. passenger airlines, Airlines for America, declined to comment on ALPA’s claims. AIN also attempted to elicit comment from Delta and the International Air Transport Association, neither of which offered a position as of publication time.