A controversial leader has taken over as chairman of the United Airlines chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, at a time when every major airline and its pilots are moving toward contract deals that will shape the industry for the next several years.
Neil Swindells, a Chicago-based Boeing 787 captain, was elected chairman Monday in a 9-8 vote by the United master executive council. Votes by the two remaining members of the 19-member board were not counted because the ballots were improperly filled out. (A source said those votes were likely split between Swindells and another candidate.) The election was necessary because Chairman Mike Hamilton stepped down suddenly, due to an unspecified illness of a family member.
In recent years, Swindells has posted regularly on social media, opposing a tentative agreement reached over the summer in derogatory language, and singling out women, LGBT individuals and Jews in posts that were perhaps meant to be humorous but that also were derisive.
Swindells who joined United in 1995, did not respond to phone calls, emails or a text. However, he issued an apology Tuesday evening, writing “I wish that I had expressed myself differently” in a letter to pilots. “Those words do not represent what I stand for and I apologize to anyone I offended” (Continue reading for more details.)
Early Tuesday, Joseph Genovese, treasurer, and vice president of finance at ALPA national, said he is concerned about Swindells’ election. Genovese, a 32-year United pilot, intends to resume flying after his term ends on Dec. 31.
“His comments are troubling,” Genovese said. “They are not helpful in trying to get a contract for the United pilots. I’m a United pilot and I feel that our interests need to be represented in the best possible light. If Neil’s past is somehow going to affect his ability to get a deal done, I have a problem with that.”
Genovese said he believes that a contract agreement is within sight. “The framework for a deal is there, with a failed [tentative agreement] and the Delta TA,” he said.
Last month, 94% of United pilots voted against a tentative contract, reached in June, that would have included a 14.5% pay raise. A breakthrough in the industry’s ongoing pilot contract talks came later, when Delta ALPA announced on Dec. 2 that it had reached an agreement in principle that would provide an immediate 18% pay raise and a cumulative raise of 34% after three years, plus multiple work/life balance improvement.
The opposition to the United tentative agreement had been fierce and bitter, and Swindells was a part of it.
“During the time the TA failed, the MEC members against it came in and systematically started to remove reps in favor of the TA from the councils,” Genovese said. “They wanted to put their own person in charge, and Neil has been around for a while, and he had been a critic and a voice on the forum.”
Online comments in the past two years, apparently posted by Swindell, identified as “Chicago Blue,” on a pilot forum UAL Pilotsforum.org, include:
—-A joke that begins, “A Paddy, a WOP and a Jew walk into a bar.”
— A discussion of a joint United-Emirates Airlines event that notes, “I’m sure Emirates had nothing to do with the Emirates male captain being flanked by a United female first officer either, right? – Every single optic was designed with a nod to Emirates’ dominance of the codeshare, while giving United their desired (DEI) money shot.” DEI refers to “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” a corporate diversity program.
—A comment directed to someone named Kirby (Not necessarily United CEO Scott Kirby) , “Continuing to get your gay man on today I see.”
In the letter on Tuesday, Swindells wrote, “ I would like to address communications that have surfaced regarding things I posted on a private pilot forum. The language was often colorful, heated, and inappropriate. In retrospect, I wish that I had expressed myself differently.
“Those words do not represent what I stand for and I apologize to anyone I offended,” he wrote.” As I stated in my opening message as MEC Chair, I intend to represent all pilots and am dedicated to bringing you an industry leading contract. We have experienced significant internal turmoil over recent months and it is time for all of us to move forward together.”