Tuesday, September 25, 2012

American Airlines pilots asked to return to bargaining table

Pilots at American Airlines, which has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization since Nov. 29, 2011, have been asked to come back to the bargaining table.

Keith Wilson, president of the Allied Pilots Association (APA), announced Sept. 24 that he had received a letter from American, “expressing the desire to re-engage in negotiations with APA.” As a result, Wilson will meet with the union’s board of directors Set. 26 “to discuss management’s invitation and determine APA’s next steps.”

At issue are contract concessions the airline says it needs from the pilots in order to survive.

At the heart of the matter is an August court ruling that, under the bankruptcy code and with court approval, the airline could impose its own contract terms after the Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union that represents its cockpit crews, rejected the company’s final offer.

When the court determined that the airline’s changes to the pilots’ contract were “reasonable and necessary to the company’s successful restructuring,” as the airline’s senior vice-president – people, put it in an Aug. 17 letter, pilots began walking picket lines at airports and, the company says, calling in sick at a rate 20% higher than 2011.

In addition, according to an e-mail the airline sent to its AAdvantage® members, American has seen an increase in the number of maintenance write-ups, “Many right at the time of departure,” resulting in delays while the issues are addressed.

The union counters that the delays are not surprising given the age of the planes they fly, a reduction in the number of mechanics to work on them, and the parts needed to fix issues that arise.

“Although American Airlines operates the oldest fleet of any major U.S. carrier, management has decided to furlough a large number of mechanics and close one of its largest maintenance facilities. Management also decided some time ago to reduce its inventory of spare parts,” the APA said in a Sept. 20 news release.

In a follow-up release the next day, the APA said its pilots “can’t ignore serious maintenance issues that could easily turn into safety risks,” and pointed out that “American Airlines has sustained record FAA fines totaling $162 million for improper aircraft maintenance procedures” during the past year alone.

The union also denies it is making efforts to cause a slowdown or stage an illegal sickout. There is no “job action of any sort that is organized, supported or sanctioned by the Allied Pilots Association,” the union said in its news release, adding, “We have verified that pilot sick rates have not deviated from normal historical rates. We have likewise verified that crew cancellations remain at normal rates.”

Passengers are increasingly stuck in the middle. In addition to delays, the airline is canceling many of its flights. NBCNewYork.com reported that, on Sept. 16 & 17, the airline “cancelled more flights ... than any other airline.”

Mad as hell, many passengers aren’t taking it any more, and the shift away from American has begun to escalate. 

While CBS News quotes “several prominent travel gurus [who] say it’s too early to ‘book away’ from American,” a Google search using the words “Avoid American Airlines” returned over 10 million results. The first page linked to articles with headlines including “Why you should avoid American”, “Is it time to avoid American,” and other similar leads.

Whether the dispute will be resolved quickly remains to be seen. However, if the union’s president feels the need to convene an in-person meeting of the board rather than, say, a conference call or polling board members by phone, it doesn’t bode well for a swift resolution to the conflict.

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