CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Even though the president of the Air Line Pilots Association says he will turn over a controversial pilot seniority list to
, there are signs that a strategy may be emerging to settle the bitter battle over the document.
In a weekend letter sent to pilots, ALPA President John Prater promised to turn over the list on Wednesday, technically enabling the airline to implement it. But in fact that can't occur until pilots approve a contract agreement with the airline, Prater said, adding that pilot leaders are seeking to craft a comprehensive proposal.
Prater's move is the latest step in a battle that has festered since May, when an ALPA arbitrator issued a ruling on how to join two sets of pilots following the 2005 merger of US Airways and America West. Seniority is key to pilots' careers, because it determines their salaries and schedules.
The ruling has been generally applauded by the 1,800 pilots at America West, known as "the west." But most of the 3,200 pilots from the former US Airways, or "the east" group, find it so inequitable that they are seeking to replace ALPA with a new union, the US Airline Pilots Association.
The principal problem is that hundreds of east pilots with more than 17 years of seniority are placed behind west pilots with less time, limiting their present and future career prospects.
Leaders of the west and east pilots groups both addressed Prater's move in their own weekend letters. John McIlvenna, chairman of the west pilots, said it "means very little, other than the completion of an administrative hurdle."
The next step, McIlvenna said, is joint talks between east and west pilots, with the aim of devising an agreement on both seniority integration and a new contract proposal that would improve conditions for both groups.
"Some of you are philosophically opposed to any talks about implementation with our east brothers and sisters, but I would ask you to please maintain an open mind," he told his members.
Jack Stephan, president of the US Airways ALPA chapter, said Prater's move is disruptive, coming as east and west pilots were moving toward joint talks. "ALPA has held the list for almost seven months," he said. "The timing of this action panders to the demands of the America West
Stephan said a panel of three east pilots, charging with negotiating a settlement, will suspend its work and reassess its position.
Still, it is clear there is a deal to be had. There are several approaches. One might be to fence off areas, such as bases or aircraft types, where it would not apply, or at least not for a number of years. Another would be to delay implementation of the entire ruling. Or, the ruling could be modified.
To be sure, the new union, the US Airline Pilots Association, appears likely to win an election. In November, it collected about 3,100 signature cards, representing well over half of the merged airline's pilots, who said they wanted an opportunity to vote for new representation.
But a USAPA win would likely be an unpleasant outcome. While it would prevent or at least delay the ruling's implementation, it would also lead inevitably to litigation, the postponement of an improved contract and less-than-optimal pilot interactions.
A deal would require concessions by all sides. West pilots would have to stop insisting that the list as it stands be implemented. They would also have to cease asking how east pilots, after agreeing to an arbitrator, can seek to scrap his ruling.
For their parts, east pilots would have to continue living with ALPA, even though many feel it has failed them. They would also have to stop pointing out that the merged airline's crown jewels -- strong positions at key Northeast airports -- came from the east as part of a merger to which America West contributed no money.
Without a compromise, such valid arguments can all continue forever, with no benefit to anyone.