A commuter airline has filed 19 lawsuits against pilots who recently quit their jobs, suing them for thousands of dollars the airline says the pilots owe for training costs.
The company, Florida-based Southern Airways Express, is trying to enforce a controversial employment clause that has recently gained national attention. Known as a “training repayment agreement provision,” the clauses stipulate that workers will pay the company a particular amount of money if they resign before they’ve worked there for a set amount of time.
Employers who use such agreements say they help assure that workers won’t immediately quit for higher-paying jobs right after they receive valuable training. But critics of the agreements — including the Federal Trade Commission under President Joe Biden — say they can unfairly lock workers in their jobs and keep wages down by limiting mobility in the labor market.
Over the course of a week in July, Southern Airways filed 19 complaints against former pilots in small-claims and county court in Florida’s Palm Beach County, according to court records. In each case, the airline alleges the pilot signed a promissory note when accepting the job, committing to fly for at least 12 months after logging enough hours to become a “pilot in command,” or captain.
The pilots could be on the hook for up to $20,000 if they voluntarily resigned, were fired “for cause” or became “unable to fulfill [their] duties and tasks” before working the allotted time, according to the lawsuits. Most of the promissory notes were for $16,000. The amount the pilots owed could be reduced based on how much they worked as captains before leaving.
Southern Airways CEO Stan Little told HuffPost in an interview that the company recently decided to enforce the agreements for several pilots who had quit, leading to the slew of complaints the airline filed in court. He said there had been no mass resignation, but he believed signing bonuses and other offers from competitors had lured pilots away.
“If there weren’t a pilot shortage, this wouldn’t be an issue at all.”
– Stan Little, Southern Airways Express CEO
“The last thing we want to do is in any way try to intimidate people that are on our team,” Little said. “We don’t want to come after anyone with a stick. We want to come to people with carrots.”
Little said pilots generally come to Southern Airways without much flight time and that the company offers a fast way to rack up hours as “second-in-command” and become captain. He said the company expects pilots to stick around and teach the next crop of recruits before leaving for higher-paying jobs.
According to court documents, Southern Airways paid pilots a starting wage of $12 per hour, which rose to $18 and then $21 per hour as they accrued more flight time.
“This is a bargain that is made very clear on your first day,” Little said. “In exchange for getting that very valuable training and experience, they agree when they are upgraded to the pilot’s seat they will stay for a set period of time.”
Rachel Dempsey, an attorney with the legal aid group Towards Justice, which has been critical of such contracts, said she was surprised to see Southern Airways file so many complaints in July. Dempsey’s group has called on federal agencies to bar the use of the training repayment agreements, arguing that they suppress wages and discourage workers from speaking up about workplace concerns.
“It was really striking how many lawsuits were filed against a large number of pilots in a very short period,” Dempsey said. “Employers who provide competitive pay and working conditions don’t need to use [these agreements].”
Little estimated that “90% plus” of the company’s pilots stay at least a year as captain before leaving, many going on to the larger regional airline SkyWest, which has a minority stake in Southern Airways.
Southern Airways is a small operation compared to the major carriers most travelers are familiar with. Little said the company has around 300 pilots in total.
In one pilot’s resignation letter, which was included in court documents, the pilot wrote that he was leaving “due to ongoing concerns regarding maintenance and safety” at the company, as well as personal circumstances. Little denied that pilots were leaving due to safety issues.
Dempsey said that, generally speaking, the prospect of a training debt being enforced could make a worker think twice about raising safety concerns.
“We don’t want pilots or nurses or truckers — all industries where [these contracts] are used — to be afraid to leave their jobs or speak out about unsafe practices,” she said.
There is no reliable data on the prevalence of training repayment agreements in the broader economy. Some companies have come under fire for using them, including PetSmart, which, as HuffPost reported last year, sued a dog groomer for thousands of dollars in training costs after she quit her job.
“It was really striking how many lawsuits were filed against a large number of pilots in a very short period.”
– Rachel Dempsey, Towards Justice
The contracts appear to be more common in aviation, where some companies argue they need to recoup their training investments before pilots leave for competing firms. HuffPost reported in January that the cargo airline Ameriflight had sued a pilot for $20,000 when she left for another job.
The Federal Trade Commission recently issued a proposed rule that would effectively ban noncompete agreements, which bar workers from taking jobs with competitors for a certain period after leaving a firm. The independent agency’s proposal would include training repayment provisions as part of the ban, arguing they function the same as noncompetes.
But the FTC does not have jurisdiction over aviation firms; they fall under the Department of Transportation. Progressive groups have called on the DOT and other federal agencies to develop their own bans on the agreements where the FTC rule would not apply.
Employers may be more tempted to enforce such agreements amid times of low unemployment, like now, when they have to jostle with one another for workers. Although there are signs the labor market has softened a bit lately, the rate at which workers are quitting for other positions remains above pre-pandemic levels, suggesting workers are still in a strong position to bargain for better wages and benefits.
The competition has been fierce in aviation, with carriers offering juicy signing bonuses to attract pilots.
“If there weren’t a pilot shortage, this wouldn’t be an issue at all,” Little said.
Of the complaints the company filed against recently departed pilots, he added, “There will be more to come.”