Sky-High Standoffs: The Longest Strikes in Aviation History

As with other industries, the aviation industry also experiences strikes which sometimes bring untold hardship to travelers around the world. Although, there are usually genuine reasons for strikes. Most of the strikes in the aviation industry often happen due to poor welfare and poor retirement package for aviation workers, including pilots and ground staff; aviation workers also strike for safety reasons.

The aviation industry has seen its fair share of strikes over the years, with some lasting for just a few days and others dragging on for several months. With strikes now being a common theme in the aviation industry, we will take a look at some of the longest strikes in the history of the aviation industry.

Century Airlines strike 1932

The first strike in commercial aviation history is referred to as the Century Airlines strike. The strike occurred when pilots of Century Airlines moved against the proposal to cut their wages by up to 40%. The two-month strike was the first in commercial aviation history and the first of the newly formed Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). The strike consequently led to the sale of Century Arlines and highlighted some of the problems facing the nascent aviation industry.

Southern Airways pilot strike 1960

What could be said to be the longest strike in aviation history started on the 5th of June 1960 and lasted till September 21, 1962. The strike involved pilots of Southern Airways, who were demanding better pay and working conditions. The strike, which lasted a total of 838 days or, better put, two years, three months, and 16 days quickly escalated after their demands were not met. The striking pilots scaled their demands from better pay and working condition to include the status of pilots reinstated in the airline and their seniority. 

The strike was called off after agreements were reached between the striking pilots and the management of Southern Airways on September 21, 1962, in New York.

The protesting pilots obtained a large number of the airline’s shares to exert pressure on anti-union management.

The striking pilots also got solidarity from their counterparts in other airlines as 5000 pilots from a total of about 47 airlines gathered at over 23 American airports to support their striking colleagues from Southern American Airways. 

Southern Airways airplane
Southern Airways aeroplane at Shuttlesworth International Airport, Birmingham © Wikimedia Commons

Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike 1981

One of the longest strikes in the aviation industry took place in 1980 when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike. Over 12000 members of the PATCO walked off after contract negotiations failed with the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA). The strike lasted for several days and was sparked by a dispute over pay and working conditions. 

Despite the strike being illegal, as it was in violation of a no-strike clause in the controllers’ contract, over 12,000 controllers walked off the job. 

The strike resulted in widespread flight cancellations and delays, causing major disruptions for passengers and airlines. Eventually, President Ronald Reagan ordered the striking workers to resume work, and after 48 hours, fired the striking controllers and banned them from federal service for life. This action significantly impacted the aviation industry, reducing the number of air traffic controllers and increasing the workload for those who remained.

PATCO was established in 1968It was successful in using some sick-outs and slowdowns to get retirement and retraining benefits for its members employed by the federal government. In the lead-up to the 1980 presidential election, PATCO endorsed Ronald Reagan in his bid to unseat the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan pledged to work with PATCO for the better welfare of its members. “I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers.” Reagan wrote in a letter to Robert Poli, PATCO president, in October 1980.

In February 1981, PATCO began contract negotiation with the FAA seeking a 32-hour working week, a better retirement package, and a $10,000 raise for all its members totalling a $770 million package. The government offered a counter package of $40 million which PATCO rejected.

On the 3rd of August 1981, the majority of PATCO members, about 12000 people, went on strike, breaking a law that banned government employees from going on strike. Reagan declared the strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered the striking workers to resume work within 48 hours, decreeing there would be no negotiations and no amnesty.”

On the 5th of August, Reagan fired PATCO members that remained on strike and also banned them from being hired.

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan
Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan © Wikimedia Commons

Five American Airlines strike in 1966

Another strike worthy of note involved five American Airlines and lasted between the 8th of July and 19th of August, 1966, lasting one month and 12 days. The strike involved airline workers from United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Trans World Airways, National Airways, and Eastern Airlines. The American aviation industry was literarily inoperative as 35000 workers chose not to work owing to a litany of demands.

Due to the strike, about 60% of American aviation operations were grounded as International Association of Machinists (IAM) members across the country and employed by five airlines went on strike for 42 days. It is still regarded in many quarters as the largest strike in the aviation industry.

After several years of accepting flat wages, aircraft mechanics and other ground services workers sought to share in the profits of 1965. Represented by IAM, the workers negotiated with these five airlines. In a bid to hasten the resumption of services, the Presidential Emergency Board set up by President Lyndon Johnson presented a compromise package that the protesting workers rejected. The aviation industry was experiencing increasing profits owing to demand, and the workers wanted to share. However, their demands were rebuffed by these airlines. After about 1 year of negotiation and more than six months after the old contract expired, IAM members began picketing 230 airports across the US. 

Trans World Airlines
Trans World Airplane at the London Heathrow Airport © Wikimedia Commons

The strike hit deep, far, and wide as cleaners, inspectors, food service workers, and storekeepers joined mechanics on picket lines across the country. 

Over 150,000 travelers were forced to use trains, buses, and rental cars. As the strike went on, airmail and air freight were delayed across the country. Other businesses that revolved around the aviation industry, like travel agencies, hotels, and resorts, began to feel the pinch of the strike.

To smoothen things, the Civil Aeronautics Board announced that carriers still operating will be allowed to increase their services while non-scheduled airlines will be allowed to lease aircraft from the five airlines facing the strike. However, there was a pushback from the workers as the Transport Workers Union served notice that.

“they would not perform any duties not normally done before the strike and would not work on any aeroplane leased from the five downed carriers.”

President Johnson brought negotiators to the White House and announced a strike settlement calling for a 4.5% raise for the next three years. However, it was vehemently rejected by the mechanists who stormed local lodge halls. They rejected the settlement by a vote of 17,251 to 6,587.

The union and the airlines went back to the negotiation table with an all-night session, mediated by Jim Reynold, the Assistant Secretary of Labour. They reached an agreement that was ratified by the majority vote of 17,721 to 8,235. The new contract provided a 56-cent-an-hour raise for skilled workers and 50 cents an hour for others. The workers were able to reach an agreement of 6% raise, which is considerably better than the 4.5% raise offered by the president.

United Airlines
A United Airlines Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner is on final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport, arriving from Los Angeles International Airport © Wikimedia Commons

There is no specific agreement on the morality behind strikes across industries. Furthermore, the same can be said for the aviation industry. However, a breakdown of the reasons why aviation workers strike could help us put things into perspective. Interestingly, the morality behind strikes is not the focus of this article, as no one has the locus standi (right)  to make that call. The aim is to look at the years past and see how strikes have panned out in the aviation industry as it has become a common theme today.

What is your thought on these sky-high standoffs? Let us know in the comments below – we look forward to reading them!

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Victor Utomi
Victor Utomi
Victor is an aviation reporter with a passion for all things related to flight and aerospace. In addition to the coverage of the latest industry news and developments, Victor is also a crypto enthusiast, keeping a close eye on the latest trends and developments in the digital currency world. When he is not reporting on the aviation industry or following the crypto market, he can be found exploring the great outdoors. As a nature lover, he spends his free time camping, visiting zoos and nature parks, and taking in the beauty of the natural world. In addition to his love of nature, Victor is also an advocate for clean energy. He believes in the importance of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and finding sustainable energy sources to power our future. Overall, Victor brings a unique and well-rounded perspective to his reporting, combining his interests in aviation, crypto, nature, and clean energy to provide insightful and informative coverage on a variety of topics.
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