US Air Pilots Union Tackles Familiar Problems - TheStreet

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Four months after it replaced a pilots union that was in place at

US Airways

(LCC)

for 57 years, the US Airline Pilots Association confronts many of the same problems that confounded its predecessor -- plus some new ones.

Contentiousness remains between pilots at America West and US Airways, which still can't agree on a seniority list even three years after the merger of the airlines in 2005. This dispute, in fact, led to an election on April 17 that displaced the Air Line Pilots Association, and a new contract continues to appear far off.

Furthermore, once USAPA took over, former America West pilots stopped paying union dues. USAPA estimates that it's missing out on $300,000 a month. A September showdown is likely, because US Airways is required by its pilot contract to collect dues (or a service charge for pilots who aren't union members) and to terminate pilots who don't pay.

USAPA scored a coup in attracting media attention last month when it bought a full-page ad in

USA Today

that alleged US Airways is pressuring pilots to carry less fuel. The move was made after the airline required mandatory training for eight pilots who exceeded normal fuel request patterns. Some experts suggest the union moved too quickly in questioning the airline's commitment to safety.

"There are no manuals to one day wake up, throw the biggest pilots union in the world off the property and then run what is left," says USAPA Chairman Stephen Bradford, a 54-year-old Pittsburgh resident who flies as an Airbus first officer. "It's rewarding, but it is hard."

In the election in April, most of the 3,500 US Airways pilots voted to oust ALPA, which had backed the ruling that in many cases appears to favor America West pilots. Most of the 1,700 America West pilots voted to retain ALPA. The vote was 2,723 to 2,254 in favor of the US Airline Pilots Association.

USAPA faces extremely tough challenges, says Bill Swelbar, a research engineer in MIT's International Center for Air Transportation and an airline industry consultant. "Whenever there are heated situations like this, and they lead to a union change, all you can say is that time is necessary for healing," Swelbar says. "I don't believe we are near the healing yet, and we won't be until

USAPA reaches out to the other side."

For its part, USAPA seems to realize that it must extend a hand to the former America West pilots.

In some ways, USAPA maintains a beguiling innocence, apparently resulting largely from the influence of Bradford, who resembles Jimmy Stewart and who leads with humility. "My only qualification for this job was that I stood up and said I would do it," says Bradford, who plans to honor his early pledge not to seek re-election in April.

Bradford contends that a fair settlement with America West pilots is entirely possible. Reflecting his view, the walls of the USAPA suite in a suburban Charlotte, N.C., office building are filled with photos of airplanes, many of them from America West.

Yet only a handful of America West pilots have ever seen the photos. Most have been unwilling to visit. "Every person here has had good conversations with West guys," Bradford says. "But collectively, we have not been able to break through."

"The West pilots are uncertain about our intentions," says Randy Mowrey, chairman of USAPA's merger committee, which has drafted a proposed seniority list. "We worked hard to make a list, coupled with a series of meaningful conditions and restrictions, that recognizes everybody's service to the company," he says.

The list won't be made public until a tentative contract is reached, but Mowrey says it will not deprive America West pilots of any of their current flying and will preserve their premerger career expectations. "For our new union to succeed in the long term, it is critical that we work hard to advocate for the seniority rights of all of our pilots, both East and West," he says.

Regarding the America West pilots' refusal to pay dues, USAPA hasn't sought terminations, but it is likely to do so in September. "We wanted to give our fellow union pilots every opportunity to comply with the contract," says union spokesman Arnie Gentile. "But it wouldn't be fair to dues-paying members to let other members ride for free."

Says airline spokesman Morgan Durrant: "If we receive such a request and USAPA has followed the required process, then we would be obligated to follow the provisions of the pilot collective bargaining agreements."

Some America West pilots have reacted poorly to the election results, according to a lawsuit filed by USAPA in U.S. District Court in Charlotte in May. The suit alleges that some sought to sabotage the new union by making thousands of frivolous phone calls to toll-free lines, creating profane emails doctored to appear as if they were sent by USAPA, intimidating America West pilots who were open to engaging with USAPA, and taking other hostile actions.

In one case, the suit alleges, an America West pilot made 1,481 calls for 9,767 minutes to USAPA phone lines during a 10-day period. Between April 18 and May 20, USAPA's toll-free number was flooded with 13,986 calls consuming 46,047 minutes. The calls rang up charges for the fledgling union and blocked legitimate calls.

In July, the case was dismissed on the grounds that the alleged events wouldn't have violated federal antiracketeering laws, so the federal court lacked jurisdiction. The ruling said some of the claims could be refiled in state court, but USAPA hasn't decided whether to pursue the case.

Contract negotiations with the company continue to move at a snail's pace. As a result, three and a half years after the merger, pilots from the former US Airways still earn less than America West pilots. The airline has offered a package valued at about $120 million annually to equalize the pay rates, including a slight raise for the West pilots, but the talks haven't yet reached the stage where salary has been discussed.

That means that USAPA's most visible achievement, so far, has been to spark the controversy over fuel allocations. Gentile says the object wasn't to raise safety questions but rather to draw a line, because the airline challenged captain's authority when it called in the eight pilots for training. "Training should not be used as a disciplinary tool," he says. Before going public, he noted, "We made repeated requests to all levels of management and asked the Federal Aviation Administration to intervene -- it was just too important to ignore."

Swelbar says the move was extreme, and he notes that in recent months pilots at US Airways, American, a unit of

AMR

(AMR)

, and

United

(UAUA)

all have questioned their own airlines' safety practices.

"I have never seen the safety issue played as much as it is today," Swelbar says. "It is

disconcerting using the nuclear option at a time when consumer satisfaction with the industry is low. Does this really help anyone? I don't think so."