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More than 1,200 Delta pilots and staff engaged in seven airport-wide demonstrations on Thursday calling for higher pay, among other things, all while flight cancellations continue around the U.S. on the eve of the holiday weekend.

The demonstrations at major airports in New York City, Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Los Angeles featured Delta employees holding signs with messages including: "Industry-leading contract NOW."

The last time a contract was negotiated between Delta and its pilots was in 2016, said Reed Donoghue, a Delta pilot who has worked for the company for six years.

"Our message today was for Delta management that it was time to come to the table for an industry-leading contract," Donoghue told NPR over the phone. "And you know, [for] passengers out there flying this weekend, know that there's a good chance that at least one crew member on their flight, being a flight attendant or a pilot, is likely, you know, working overtime on their day off to help the operation out."

Aside from higher pay, the Delta pilots are seeking better work-life balance, health insurance, retirement and job security, Donoghue said. So far in 2022, Delta pilots are on pace by the end of the summer to have clocked more overtime hours than in 2018 and 2019 combined, he added.

Delta told NPR that the demonstrations Thursday by its staff would "not disrupt our operation for our customers."

"Earlier this year, Delta, ALPA, and a representative from the National Mediation Board restarted our mediated contract negotiations that had been paused for almost two years due to the pandemic," Delta told NPR in a statement. "Our goal remains to continue providing Delta pilots with an industry-leading overall contract with the best compensation based on pay, retirement, work rules, and profit-sharing. We're also committed to making sure the contract language supports our ability to run a world-class operation, maintain a strong balance sheet, and invest in our business for our customers and employees alike."

The demonstrations Thursday came a day after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanderssaid that he called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the U.S. Department of Transportation to take action to reduce airline cancellations and delays.

With air travel demand surging, airlines have been struggling to keep up, due in part to a pilot shortage. When faced with problems such as inclement weather, many airlines have been forced to cancel flights entirely.

Lance Wilson is a campaigner with The Worker Agency who believes Delta's employees "deserve to be properly compensated."

"Over the past six years, inflation and the pandemic has made the cost of basic needs skyrocket, so Delta needs to stop exploiting their employees and pay them a livable wage for the valuable work they do," Wilson told NPR over email.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Franklin.

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