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In the 1976 movie NETWORK, the main character shouts one of the most famous lines in film history: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In a remarkable case of life imitating art, in 1997 the pilots of Air Logistics came together with the same voice and voted not to take it anymore.

By 1997, Offshore Logistics, the parent of Air Logistics, had become the largest, most financially profitable helicopter operator in the world. Unfortunately the employees had not shared in the growing prosperity. The growth of Offshore Logistics is the story of Air Logistics and the hard work and sacrifice by the pilots, mechanics and support personnel.

Air Logistics was founded in 1972 as part of Offshore Logistics, a major supplier of boat services to the offshore oil industry. Prior to that, Petroleum Helicopters was, with a few small exceptions, the only source of helicopter services to the Gulf of Mexico oil companies. As the first of the 1970’s oil shortages emerged, new technologies meant offshore drilling could move farther offshore. Helicopter support quickly became an indispensable tool, allowing for timely crew changes and quick delivery of vital parts to keep the oil rigs drilling. With rigs costing tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate, helicopters were a cheap link to the mainland. They were cheap, in large part, due to the cost of labor. Bob Suggs, the owner of Petroleum Helicopters, had found an unlimited pool of helicopter pilots in returning Viet Nam veterans. The standard by which the growing industry viewed its pilots was summed up by the statement attributed to Bob Suggs that he could find all the pilots he wanted in the gutters of New Orleans.

Air Logistics began business with pilots who saw an opportunity to found a company that offered an alternative to PHI. While the pay was comparable, Air Log gave its first pilots stock options, a savings retirement plan, and an unlimited sick leave policy. Pilots were also drawn to the loosely administered seniority system that allowed for quick checkouts in the Bell 205 and Bell 212.

Air Logistics was a lean company in the early days. Pilots washed their own helicopters and stayed in trailers with two men to a room. Base facilities were often slapped together affairs with a few pads and a temporary building. The primitive living and working conditions were tolerated because the late 70’s brought fundamental and rapid changes that promised a better future.

Starting in 1977, the offshore drilling industry and its helicopter support began a rapid expansion. New rigs were being built and Air Log had a waiting list of customers clamoring for helicopter services. Instead of hiring one or two pilots a month, Air Log would hire a dozen or more pilots at a time. As demand from the oil companies increased, helicopter rates increased. Rates were being increased every six months. As rates increased so did the pay for the pilots. During that period, pay increases of 25% over six months or more were realized. An IFR pilot who started in 1976 at $1000 a month saw his pay triple by 1981. During the late seventies it truly appeared that helicopters pilots had a bright future.

Offshore Logistics flourished in the late seventies. Its stock price soared to over $30 a share. Management decided to spend the millions of dollars in profits it had earned into the helicopter completion market by founding Heliflight at Conroe, Texas. With the STC for the new Sikorsky S-76 autopilot system, it was hoped that the new addition to Offshore Logistics would be a profitable addition.

All indications pointed to high oil prices remaining high. Then starting in the early 80’s the bottom began to fall out of the oil market. Soon oil prices were below $10 a barrel and the rig count fell precipitously. As the rig count fell, helicopters and boats were dropped from contracts. For Offshore Logistics, the coming years became a battle for survival.

Boat rates plummeted, helicopter rates plummeted and no more corporations sought to buy helicopters and have Heliflight complete them. With over $100 million in debt, Offshore Logistics was verging on bankruptcy. To make matters worse, Offshore had failed to solidify the infrastructure of its cash cow, Air Log. Its main base at Patterson was a dilapidated disgrace. An official from ARCO petroleum had fallen through the floor at the Sabine base. Desperately seeking to keep the company alive by cutting costs, management began by informing the pilots that their seven and seven schedule would be changed to ten and five. This decision was announced at, of all places, the 1983 Awards Banquet. The response from the pilots was immediate and unanimous. The morning following the announcement, word spread like wildfire throughout the gulf. With no coordination, the reply from every pilot was: “If we are forced to go ten and five; I quit.” That same morning also saw management’s response to the pilot’s solidarity. The announcement the night before had been a mistake; the schedule would remain seven and seven.

This arbitrary decision by management brought about the first attempt to unionize the pilots of Air Logistics. A number of pilots approached the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union to help organize the pilots into a union. Thus began a period where the pilot’s future hung in the balance.

As union cards were circulated, the company began a series of steps to try and save the company. Heliflight was closed and the company returned most of its boats to the Maritime Administration in return for the forgiving of over $50 million in debt. Banks were persuaded not to call in their debt. With those steps, Offshore Logistics was out of the boat business and its future would live or die with Air Logistics.

Management instituted a ten percent pay cut and eliminated travel and per diem. These steps fueled the drive to bring a voice for the pilots. After much wrangling, the pilots voted but the union drive failed narrowly. The reasons the movement failed can probably be summed up as the wrong union at the wrong time. As the primary union for workers at oil refineries, the OCAW was despised by the oil companies. With less than 50 full time contracts and PHI able to take most if not all jobs immediately, a majority of pilots decided that the time was not right to unionize.

As the oil business began a slow recovery, Air Log slowly turned the corner and was finally able to get on a sound financial footing. Rates began to increase and some adjustments were made to the salary structure. Per Diem pay was never reinstated except for workover. In 1987 the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) began an attempt to organize the gulf helicopter pilots but the effort went nowhere. ALPA wanted all the gulf pilots and while Air Log pilots were willing the PHI pilots were not. Not surprisingly the company came up with an across the board pay raise during this period.

The early 1990’s saw Air Logistics roar back from near bankruptcy. Profits soared, often exceeding 4 million dollars a quarter. With margins of 25%, one stock analyst who followed the industry compared the company to Lazarus, rising from the dead.

As quarter after quarter passed with record earnings, the pilots waited for the pay and benefits to get better. Nothing happened. Management received lucrative stock options but the pilot pay scale remained frozen. Quarter after quarter turned into years and still nothing.

As the years passed, the company took its profits and sought to expand by buying a 49% stake in Bristow Helicopters of Redhill, England. In a deal valued at close to $300 million dollars, Offshore Logistics had become the biggest helicopter company in the world. Revenues that had totaled $45 million in the late 1980’s now totaled $450 million.

During this period, the company’s attitude towards its employees was exemplified by its reaction to a minor movement of a few pilots. A number of pilots had formed a loose net group that retained the services of an aviation attorney to protect themselves in case of enforcement actions by the FAA. The group disseminated a survey form asking the question as to whether the pilots would be interested in organizing a union. In an attempt to stifle any union move, Jim Clement, President of Offshore Logistics quickly announced a Safety and Incentive bonus. One percent of Air Logistics revenues would be distributed to the employees if they didn’t screw up. For people who hadn’t seen a pay raise in over eight years, this was too little, too late. As an editorial in ROTOR & WING wrote: “try taking a bonus to the bank for a loan.”

As bad as the situation was at Air Log, the pilots at PHI were having the same problems. In early 1997, several pilots at PHI approached the Office And Professional Employees International Union, AFL-CIO to organize their pilots. As the first meetings were held, pilots from Air Log attended and brought back organization cards to their bases. Within a matter of days the cards had been signed and returned and more cards were urgently requested. In just a few short weeks the company was notified by the National Mediation Board that the pilots had petitioned for an election.

Management was stunned. In February the Board of Directors had been informed that there were union rumblings at PHI but that all was quiet at Air Log. By March, they were informed that their pilots were going to vote on having a union.

Management, which rarely ever visited the field, now began to make regular visits. Jim Clement argued that no oil company would do business with a union company. He was greeted with either stone silence or pointed rebuttals. His attempt to try and convince pilots how good they had it didn’t work.

In August 1997 the votes were counted and the union was voted in by an overwhelming margin. Now came the hard part, getting a contract.

Having a union and negotiating a contract are very different. The early days with OPEIU were not very productive. Unfortunately Air Logs’ new Local 107 got mixed up in an internal dispute within OPEIU that delayed any meaningful negotiations for many months. Finally OPEIU got its act together and negotiations began. The company hired an outside negotiator and immediately began to stall and drag out negotiations. After a third meeting in which the company failed to produce the requested documents, the union requested and got a federal mediator to oversee the negotiations.

Negotiating sessions proceeded slowly with minor items being agreed but real progress still fleeting. Finally, in the spring of 1999, the negotiator called both sides together with the understanding that there would be a contract or the union would be free to implement self help (strike). After much back and forth, both sides agreed to a contract and word was flashed back to the gulf. Everyone was ecstatic. No sooner had word been received that a contract was reached than word came that the company had reneged on the agreement, pleading poverty. Pilots were told to get out the ‘bag tags.’ The bag tags were little nametags that stated on the back “I Will Strike.” With the prospect that Air Log customers would come to work Monday morning and be greeted with the prospect of a pilot’s strike, the company agreed to the original proposal. Local 107 had its first contract. It was one of the most lucrative first contracts in the history of the AFL-CIO.

In the years that have followed the implementation of the first contract, the relations between the union and the company have been tenuous. The company has often operated as if the contract means whatever they want it to mean. Numerous grievances have been filed to force the company to honor the contract. In 2001 the company unilaterally changed the pay scale to adjust to the PHI and ERA pay scale which by then had superceded the Air Log pay. Unfortunately the company reneged on its promise of a 5% pay raise effective July 1, 2002.

As the pilots of Local 107 go into 2003 negotiations, many lessons have been learned. The next contract will have a lot more specificity, and will be much more lucrative. Our brothers at our Bristow division have a contract that ties their salaries with mid-size airline pilot salaries that exceed $110,000 a year. It’s taken a long time and there is much left to accomplish, but the future for the pilots of Local 107 is bright.