US Airways Pilots Veer Away From ALPA

The seniority issue isn't going away for the airline.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Of all the airline employees who have sacrificed in the name of industry restructuring, almost none have been asked to give up as much as have pilots for the former US Airways.

Salary cuts in two bankruptcies brought them close to the bottom of the barrel in pay. Their pension plan was fully terminated. Only pilots at

United

(UAUA)

suffered the same fate.

Now, because a 2005 merger with America West that formed the new

US Airways

(LCC)

spurred an effort to merge the two airlines' pilot lists, many are threatened with losing their seniority.

Seniority is critical to pilots because it determines salaries and schedules. A May arbitrator's ruling on seniority integration generally favored younger, less experienced America West pilots over the older, more experienced US Airways pilots. (Within the company, the predecessor airlines are often called "the west" and "the east.")

The issue has pushed east pilots to the point at which most are prepared to leave the 61,000-member Air Line Pilots Association, which has represented them since 1951, and to join a proposed in-house union, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association.

Business was brisk last week during USAPA information sessions at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, the largest hub for US Airways. A steady stream of pilots dropped by to chat with union leaders, review pamphlets and, at times, sign union authorization cards.

So far, USAPA has collected about 2,300 signatures, says Mark Thorpe, interim vice president. It wants several hundred more before submitting them to the National Mediation Board. If the board decides the signatures represent more than half of the bargaining unit, it could call a representation election for about 5,000 US Airways pilots, including 3,200 from the east and 1,800 from the west.

The NMB has not yet determined whether the two groups constitute a single bargaining unit.

USAPA leaders say that because the seniority ruling was a step toward implementing ALPA's policy on merged unions, leaving ALPA would invalidate it. "A successor union would be free to negotiate with US Airways concerning the terms of any seniority integration," says an opinion by a law firm retained by USAPA. ALPA disputes this opinion.

ALPA has too many constituencies to faithfully represent east pilots, says Stephen Bradford, interim president of USAPA. "We will not put our futures in the hands of others whose interests may not be aligned with ours," he says.

The arbitrator's ruling falls short, he says, because it is not based on the date of hire. In 1991, ALPA changed its policy on seniority integration to make "career expectations" the key factor. This fuzzy standard enabled endless quibbling over which pilot group had a better future -- particularly because, at the time of the merger, both worked for troubled airlines facing uncertainty.

The ruling puts about 1,800 once-furloughed east pilots, hired as early as 1988, behind the newest west pilot, who was hired in 2005. In other cases, it integrates pilots using a formula that takes some from one airline's list and some from the other's, with no regard for relative seniority. Only the 517 most senior east pilots retain their existing seniority.

Although leaving ALPA would appear to enable east pilots to avoid the ruling's impact, the reality may not be so simple.

Among the many variables, ALPA attorneys contend that "any successor union would inherit all contracts and agreements," says ALPA spokesman Pete Janhunen. Those attorneys "have practiced railway labor law for 70 years," he adds. (The Railway Labor Act governs airline labor relations.)

In any case, a successor union would eventually have to integrate seniority lists. John McIlvenna, chairman of the America West ALPA chapter, questions whether a new union would represent both groups. But if it did, he says, "they would still have the same mess they have now."

A conflict would likely end up in federal court. A judge might adopt the existing ruling or seek another one, choosing to disregard an exercise that consumed 18 days of hearings with thousands of pages of transcripts and was overseen by an arbitrator approved by both sides, McIlvena says.

Both Janhunen and McIlvenna see alternatives to a new union.

Janhunen says ALPA's executive council has yet to approve the ruling. Even if it does, the ruling cannot take effect until pilots negotiate a single contract with the carrier. At the moment, a committee formed by the council is still negotiating with both pilot groups to try to craft a solution, he says.

McIlvenna says the best choice would be to let contract negotiations proceed. While east pilots have opted out until their pay levels are brought to west levels, talks between west pilots and the airline are set to resume Sept. 24. There could be a deal by year-end, McIlvenna says, and it could provide better pay and better schedules for east pilots, whose contract was gutted in bankruptcy.

"The west would see improvements," he says. "But it would be a stellar contract for the east."

USAPA's Thorpe says seniority -- which impacts schedules, quality of life, equipment and rank -- is too important to trade out. "The east pilots' seniority is not for sale," he says.