When Hawaiian Airlines pilots and their union opened a strike operations center this week, it showed that they could walk off the job to get higher salaries. But such a walkout would have serious consequences for interisland travel.
"There is a possibility that the government could say 'You can't strike interisland; you can strike in the other part of the airline,'" said aviation expert Peter Forman.
Forman said that could happen under the federal Railway Labor Act, which also covers airlines. It tries to substitute bargaining, arbitration and mediation, instead of a strike.
Hawaiian's dominance in the interisland market would also be a factor. "I cannot imagine an interisland strike being allowed because with over 85 percent of the market share, there's no way the other airlines could pick up the slack," said Forman.
The Air Line Pilots Association says a Hawaiian Airlines pilot with 12 years experience currently earns $150,000 a year. The union says the same pilot could make $200,000 at most other airlines.
"We don't want to go down the road to a strike," said Hawaiian pilot Matthew Merrill. "We want to be able to negotiate a fair market rate contract that's in line with other companies across the industry."
Forman believes Hawaiian pilots are in a good position to try to get such a contract.
"There's a pilot shortage. There's not a lot of pilots who can replace them. The airline, Hawaiian, is doing great financially. And other airlines, such as United, have gotten big raises," he said.
For now, the pilots union says no strike is possible, at least for another six to eight weeks. Forman also says the National Mediation board must rule that mediation isn't working in the contract talks. That would be followed by a 30-day "cooling off" period. Only after that could the pilots authorize a strike.
"We really don't know when the National Mediation Board is going to say, well, mediation's not working," said Forman. "So that is going to be kind of our heads up that, you know, we got about 30 days."