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US Airways Pilot Conflict Dominates Union Election

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- The ongoing campaign for election to the presidency of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association shows that while the faces have changed, the battle continues between the warring factions of pilots at US Airways (LCC).

US Airways merged with Phoenix-based America West in 2005. The merger generally succeeded, combining two weak airlines into a relatively strong one. But the combined carriers' image remains blemished by conflict between pilots from "the east" and "the west." They are divided by a controversial 2007 arbitrator's seniority ruling that seemed to favor west pilots, leading east pilots to orchestrate a 2008 departure from the Air Line Pilots Association, the primary pilot union, after 57 years.

US Airways Pilots are voting for new officers at the union they formed in 2008.

Because the east accounts for about two-thirds of the airline's pilots, of whom 4,195 are active, it has produced USAPA's first two presidents. That pattern may well continue in a race that pits Gary Hummel, 56, a Philadelphia-based Airbus A320 captain, against Eric Ferguson, 40, a Phoenix-based A320 first officer, in voting that concludes March 22. The winner begins a three-year term April 18. Current president Mike Cleary chose not to run.

In a first round of voting that concluded Thursday, Ferguson won with 1,119 votes, 35% of the total, while Hummel got 1,012 votes, or 29%. Two other east candidates, now eliminated, drew 1,037 votes. Given the continuing sharp division between pilot groups, most of those votes will be expected to go to Hummel, but that is not to say that it would be impossible for Ferguson to pull off an upset.

The candidates agree on one key issue: Pilots need a new contract, and the seniority dispute is keeping them from getting it. East pilots signed a bankruptcy-court contract in 2005, while the west contract was signed in 2003. Ferguson says his election "will be the quickest route to an industry-leading contract," although he notes it would have to include the seniority ruling, made by arbitrator George Nicolau.

Could such a contract possibly be palatable to east pilots? Ferguson says their dissatisfaction would be a bargaining chip. "The union has the ability to say 'this is our price' because you have to have a ratifiable contract," he says: in other words, the contract must be better than what it would be with date-of-hire seniority, which the east would prefer.

While firmly behind the ruling -- virtually all west pilots believe in the commitment both sides made to "final and binding" arbitration -- Ferguson said he is fully capable of representing all pilots.

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