Updated from 3:28 p.m. EDTCHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Just days before voting begins in a historic union-representation election, the pilot group at US Airways ( LCC) is in disarray. A new union, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, is battling to replace the Air Line Pilots Association, which has represented US Airways pilots for 57 years. From every indication, the approximately 5,300 voting members are sharply divided. "Pilots are mad," says Jack Stephan, who was re-elected Thursday to a second two-year term as chairman of the US Airways ALPA chapter. "They're at their tipping point." The conflict results from a questionable 2007 seniority ruling that followed the 2005 merger between US Airways, known as "the east," and America West, know as "the west." The arbitrator's ruling would force hundreds of east pilots with 15 years or more in the cockpit to become junior to west pilots employed by the company for only a few years. The union election is scheduled for March 20 through April 17. The east has about 3,500 voting members, and the west has around 1,800. (Figures include about 800 inactive members.) Most east pilots oppose the ruling. Most west pilots support it and will likely back ALPA, even though east ALPA leaders oppose it. To win the election, it would seem, ALPA needs votes from about 1,000 east pilots. To support its petition to the National Mediation Board, USAPA gathered about 3,100 signatures, including most east pilots. If everyone who signs a card votes the same way, ALPA will be decertified at a major airline for the first time since 1963. "I believe we are going to prevail, although I don't think it will be a landslide," says USAPA chairman Stephen Bradford. While US Airways' ALPA leaders "are doing the best they can, they are tied to failed national policies," he says. Stephan expects reason, and ALPA, to triumph over emotion. "Pilots have been trained to make ice cold, calculating decisions," he says. "If an engine conks out, you first come out with a bunch of expletives. But then you remove the emotion and methodically follow the checklist. And you make a decision that may not be what your gut tells you to do, but what you feel you have to do." Signs of conflict are everywhere. ALPA recently placed its Philadelphia local, the largest US Airways local, under a trusteeship, removing elected pilot leaders who backed USAPA. "This stinks of a putsch requiring loyalty oaths," Bradford says. "Even moderate pilots are angry that a national organization reaches in and messes with internal politics." While the decision was made by national ALPA, Stephan says it was warranted. "As elected union representatives, we are required to defend the union in which we were elected," he says. In Charlotte, home of the second-biggest ALPA local, pilot Bob Frear wants to remove local chairman Marshall Rogers. The reason, Frear says, is that "we are living under the worst contract of any union out there." He contends Rogers has refused to set a date for a required recall meeting. Rogers says the date is March 25. Bradford says USAPA is not involved. Just in the past few days, most leaders of the ALPA chapters in Boston and Pittsburgh have resigned. "I have come to the conclusion that ALPA ... is broken beyond repair," Boston Chairman Richard Peters wrote in a letter to Stephan. "I cannot represent my pilots in such a poisonous atmosphere." Meanwhile, ill feelings between west pilots and USAPA have apparently spilled over to US Airways flights, where in once case a pilot on one side reportedly denied an opposing pilot the right to fly in the cockpit jump seat. Details of the alleged incident could not be pinned down, but such breeches of protocol have been condemned from all sides. On Wednesday, Bradford flew as first officer on an A319 on a Charlotte to Phoenix trip, and the captain extended jump seat privileges to John McIlvenna, chairman of the America West pilots. "There was courtesy all the way around. We stayed off the subject of USAPA vs. ALPA," he said. "The jump seat should not be used as a weapon."
As far as the issues are concerned, Bradford says that if USAPA takes over, it will move to date-of-hire seniority, but "fences will ensure that premerger positions are protected," he says. If ALPA wins, Stephan says, the ruling will not be implemented because it must be part of a contract, on which pilots vote. "The only way for it to be implemented is for us to agree to it," he says. Meanwhile, he says, one cannot overstate the advantages of a strong, established union that offers various level of personal support, lobbies extensively for pilot causes and has been a key proponent of airline safety for decades. Bradford says independent networks could provide the same benefits. The simmering crisis will end, both leaders agree, when west pilots determine it is in their interest to make peace and gain access to lucrative international flying, most of which, including planned Beijing service, is flown by the east crew base in Philadelphia. Even with fences, Bradford says, "in eight to 10 years, we'll
mostly be retired," and west pilots can move up. The problem with the ruling, he says, is that "they would inherit the airline prematurely." Know What You Own: US Airways operates in the airline industry, and some of the other stocks in its field include AMR ( AMR), Delta Air Lines ( DAL), Southwest Airlines ( LUV), Continental Airlines ( CAL) and JetBlue ( JBLU)JBLU. These stocks were recently trading at $10.67, $12.11, $12.40, $22.62 and $5, respectively.