US Airways Pilots Look to Endgame in Seniority Dispute

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- A federal judge in Phoenix has set Sept. 24 for a hearing that likely will begin the end game in the eight-year old seniority dispute between the two pilot groups at US Airways ( LCC) .

Roslyn Silver, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Phoenix, ordered the hearing in a case brought by pilots for the former America West, which merged with US Airways in 2005. The former AWA pilots allege that the U.S. Airlines Pilots Association, which represents the US Airways pilots, does not fairly represent them.

The pending merger with American Airlines ( AAMRQ.PK) means the time to resolve the dispute has arrived, Silver wrote last month, in her order setting the date.

Pilots from America West and pilots from the pre-merger US Airways, known as "the east," have never agreed on a seniority list. They agreed to binding arbitration, But in 2007 that process resulted in the controversial Nicolau ruling, which appeared to so strongly favor America West pilots that the pilot group, numerically dominated by east pilots, broke from the Air Line Pilots Association and created a new union, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association.

Since then, three cases have been filed in Phoenix and one has been heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Now the case is back in Phoenix, although the likelihood is that whoever loses there will appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

In the introduction to her order, Silver referred to three cases and to the Ninth Circuit's 2010 ruling that the case was not "ripe" because no one had yet been damaged by it, and summarized the litigation sequence with a baseball analogy.

"This is the third time a group of pilots formerly employed by America West Airlines, Inc. have been in litigation with their union based on the union allegedly mishandling the integration of seniority lists," Silver wrote. "The prior two suits were dismissed as not ripe, and the pilots may fear a strikeout. Here, though, the pilots' claim puts them on first base."

The issue is now ripe, Silver said, because USAPA entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American pilots. The MOU foresees establishing a seniority list under the process established by the McCaskill-Bond Amendment, passed by Congress in 2008, which includes negotiations followed by arbitration. Silver said she views the MOU as a collective bargaining agreement, ratified by all pilots working for US Airways.

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