American Air and US Airways Pilots Reach Tentative Deal on Seniority

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet)  -- The union representing US Airways pilots said it has reached a tentative deal on a protocol agreement with the union representing American ( AAL)  pilots on a process for seniority integration of the two pilot groups.

If the deal is approved by the 11-member board of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, which will meet Thursday and Friday, USAPA would rapidly cease to collect dues but it would not cease to exist.

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Rather, USAPA and a merger committee responsible to the USAPA board would continue to represent US Airways pilots on seniority issues.

Dues would be collected by the Allied Pilots Association, which would become the sole representative of American and US Airways pilots for bargaining and all other collective issues, pending the approval of the National Mediation Board.

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The NMB is expected to decide as soon as next week whether to declare APA the bargaining agent for the combined pilot group. The board would also have the option to schedule a union election, in which the options would be APA representation or no union representation at all.

A key provision of the protocol agreement specifies that the McCaskill-Bond legislation will apply. The legislation protects employee rights when two unions combine. Under its guidelines, a panel of three arbitrators would compile the seniority integration list. Merger committees from USAPA and APA will select the arbitrators.

On the crucial question of what happens to the America West pilots' battle for implementation of the controversial Nicolau seniority award, the tentative protocol agreement would establish a preliminary panel of three arbitrators to consider whether America West pilots could be separately represented in merger discussions.

US Airways merged with America West in 2005. In binding arbitration conducted under Air Line Pilots Association protocol, arbitrator George Nicolau devised a seniority list that tended to favor America West pilots over pilots from US Airways, known as "the east." In reaction, the east pilots left ALPA and formed USAPA as the merged airline's pilot representative, dragging along the west pilots, who composed only about a third of the pilot group.

Since then, the conflict has played out in court. In a January decision, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver said she didn't care much for USAPA's courtroom tactics, but she nevertheless ruled that USAPA had not breached its duty of fair representation, as the west pilots had claimed, and that the west pilots need not be separately represented in seniority list discussions with the APA.

Since Silver is the only judge to have ruled on the impact of the Nicolau ruling, east pilots generally believe that her decision should prevail in the seniority debate at the new American. However, a former America West pilot, who asked not to be named, said the three arbitrators who would decide on separate representation for west pilots likely "abhor it when willful and voluntary parties to a final and binding arbitration subsequently snub the result."

Under the tentative protocol agreement, the status quo at the start of the seniority list integration process consists of three lists: the US Airways list and the America West list, both still in place, because no merged list was ever implemented, as well as the American list. The Nicolau award is not reflected in any of the three lists.

 

USAPA contends that it is the legitimate representative of the America West pilots and that they need not be separately represented, while the west pilots have argued that they deserve separate representation. 

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USAPA envisions that a USAPA merger committee would represent all US Airways in seniority integration negotiations, while an APA merger committee would represent American pilots. USAPA President Gary Hummel had appointed two America West pilots to USAPA's four-person merger committee, but both resigned in January contending that they were committed to the Nicolau award and could not participate if it was not going to be considered.

 In other provisions, the two merger committees will split the $4 million reimbursed to pilot representatives by American Airlines for the costs they incurred for merger-related expenses. The USAPA treasury will have "ample money to conclude its work," said spokesman James Ray. If money remains when the work has concluded, it will be returned to members, Ray said. He declined to specify the full amount.

Adoption of the protocol agreement would mean that USAPA would drop a case it filed in U.S. District Court in Washington in March. In the case, filed against American Airlines, US Airways and APA, USAPA asked the court to require that the arbitration process defined in McCaskill-Bond be used in seniority integration.

At the time the case was filed, USAPA feared that APA would be named the pilot representative at a single merged carrier before the seniority issue was resolved.

In an email sent Wednesday to US Airways pilots, the USAPA merger committee said that it and its attorney "believe the tentative agreement is a positive agreement for our pilots (and) guarantees a fair and equitable seniority list integration process that is not controlled by APA.

"We believe this comprehensive and enforceable seniority process agreement is far superior to continuing litigation and which will lead to further delay and expense in the seniority list integration process and takes away the possibility that we may not be successful in the lawsuit," the committee wrote.

Ray said it is unclear whether USAPA's board will approve the agreement.

"Some members of our board are opposed to the tentative agreement, believing the protections are not enough, Ray said, adding "The agreement is important to protect our pilots going forward, and the merger committee believes the protections are sufficient to enable us to drop the lawsuit." An APA spokesman declined to comment.

Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

To contact this writer, click here.

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At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned. This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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