Last year, pilots at Delta Air Lines and Southwest overwhelmingly rejected proposed contracts and then elected union leaders who led them through earlier contract scuffles.

The message was loud and clear: It’s time for payback after years of sacrifice.

After pilots at American, the largest U.S. carrier, agreed to a long-term deal with hefty raises a year ago, some 34,000 pilots at the three next-biggest carriers moved to collect a larger part of now-record profits flowing into U.S. airline coffers. That strategy, based on pattern bargaining that unions have used for decades, is now taking shape.

“We’ve made some good strides, but they’ve not been enough,” said John Malone, chairman of the Delta chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). A Boeing 767 captain based in Atlanta, Malone took office in September, assuming the role he held more than a decade ago. Across the United States, the most senior pilots earn, on average, $209,000 per year, while new first officers make an average of $55,000. Their unions want double-digit raises.

Delta pilots consider their last true wage increase as dating back to May 2004, under the final contract negotiated before jet fuel prices spiked and the financial crisis sent the industry tumbling. Ultimately, United, Delta, Northwest, and American all filed for bankruptcy, triggering tremendous financial pain for employees, not to mention a wave of airline consolidation.

Today, the remaining four large airlines are posting robust profits, despite tepid U.S. economic growth and a drop in average domestic fares. Pilot wages have returned to levels not seen since the peak earning years of 2000-2001 — though minus roughly 15 years of inflation, said Kit Darby, a consultant who tracks pilot pay.

“They’re back to the same numbers, but they’re down the inflation rate,” said Darby. As the highest-paid airline workers apart from senior management, pilots bore the brunt of concessions made during years of deep losses, he said.

Delta boasts frequently about its reliability, and pilots say they have played a critical role in delivering those results. Late last month, Delta pilots sent the company a new proposal, with raises totaling nearly 40 percent over three years and a collection of demands. The pay rates are based on aircraft type, years of service, and designation as a first officer or captain.

“The pilots made a disproportionate contribution,” Darby said of the bad old days. “They would like to get some of that back, to get even.” Still, he said, the rank and file will probably have to settle for restoring past cuts over multiple contracts: “If you’re trying to make up 14 years of inflation in a year, that’s not going to work.”