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Court Backs US Airways Pilots on Seniority

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TheStreet) -- A U.S. Appeals Court has ruled in favor of US Airways (LCC) pilots who contested a controversial seniority ruling following the 2005 merger with America West.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco backed the U.S. Airline Pilots Association and overturned a May 2009 ruling in the U.S. District Court in Phoenix, where a jury concluded that the year-old union breached its duty to represent the six America West pilots who were the plaintiffs in the case.

US Airways

The appeals court said the matter is not "ripe," a legal term meaning it is not ready to be adjudicated because so far it has not caused harm to the plaintiffs. The appeals court remanded the case back to the Phoenix court with directions to dismiss. "We are without jurisdiction to address the merits of the claim unless it is ripe," the ruling stated.

Until US Airways pilots approve a new contract that includes a seniority list, it is impossible to determine whether the plaintiffs have been harmed, the ruling said, noting that "these contingencies make the claim speculative."

In 2008, US Airways pilots voted to replace the Air Line Pilots Association with USAPA, a newly-created union, because the ruling by arbitrator George Nicolau appeared to favor pilots from America West (known as "the west") over pilots from the pre-merger US Airways. The latter group included 5,100 pilots, compared with about 1,900 America West pilots, and it easily dominated in the union representation election.

Significantly, the appeals court appeared to suggest that the Nicolau award might never be implemented, if USAPA can design a contract with alternative protections for west pilots.

"Even under the district court's injunction mandating USAPA to pursue the Nicolau Award, it is uncertain that the west pilots' preferred seniority system ever would be effectuated," the ruling said. It is possible that USAPA will eventually implement a contract "that does not work the disadvantages plaintiffs fear, even if that proposal is not the Nicolau Award," the appeals court said.

The ruling said that so far, west pilots have not been harmed -- even though some west pilots have been furloughed -- and would not have been had the arbitrator's ruling been implemented. It is "speculative" to say that a contract that includes the ruling would have been ratified, the appeals court stated.

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