All Is Not Well in Labor Land at the New American Airlines: America West Pilots Gain an Independent Seat at the Table

When US Airways and America West merged, the airline faced contentious labor integration issues. The pilots in particular never formally got to a new contract with merged senior list. For them, the merger with American Airlines presented a final opportunity not just for increased pay but for finally overcoming the wounds the US Airways and America West pilots inflicted on each other.

America West and US Airways pilots were both represented by the same umbrella union organization. As such, they had a built-in mechanism for determining how the senior lists of the two airlines would be integrated.

US Airways had gone through two bankruptcies. It was judged to be a ‘failed carrier.’ As a result, US Airways furloughed pilots were supposed to go to the bottom of the seniority list at the merged airline for re-hire, and the arbitrator’s decision on seniority was to keep relative seniority positions intact rather than sort one list based on date of hire (which would have privileged US Airways pilots).

However US Airways was also the larger of the two airlines, and there were more US Airways pilots than America West pilots. As a result, they were able to break off and form their own union — whose purpose was to privilege US Airways pilots over their America West brethren. In effect, the purpose was to overturn the arbitration decision that put US Airways pilots at the bottom of merged seniority.

Usually a union’s purpose is to extract as much as possible from the employer. This, instead, was a Monty Python Life of Brian moment. The pilots fought each other instead of the Romans management.

Without the ability to agree on final merged terms between the airlines, all the old America West terms remained in place for the America West pilots. I’ve been told thirdhand, for instance, that America West pilots pay a monthly fee to access their crew scheduling system. It’s the kind of sore thumb item that the airline was willing to give back on, but only as part of a final joint contract. These kinds of thorns remained, because the pilots could never get together on merged seniority.

In the process of integrating with American, you really have three pilot groups and not just two that are coming together as part of the new single airline. It’s worth understanding this because it underscores that as part of the merger process in many ways you’re merging three airlines and not just two.

The bitterness amongst the pilots even leaks out in online wars, editing Wikipedia pages. For instance, as of this writing the US Airline Pilots Association page intoductory section includes,

On August 5, 2013, USAPA’s founder, former President and Vice-President Michael J. Cleary, threatened legal action against USAPA alleging it is using his trademark without his permission. Because of this action, Usapians are commonly referred to as Former Union Known as USAPA Profiteers (FUKUP’s).

The hope of course was that the merger with American meant the past squabbling would become more or less irrelevant.

Late last week an arbitration panel ruled (.pdf) that America West pilots continue to have an independent place at the table to negotiate pilot seniority list integration as part of the merger. Specifically, the ruling is that the Allied Pilots Association, as exclusive bargaining representative, has the authority to include a separate West Merger Committee in the negotiations over the objections of the US Airways Allied Pilots Association.

America West pilots continue, even now, to seek and receive separate representation.

This is a significant victory in these pilots’ battle with their US Airways East counterparts, which – hopefully given the memoranda governing the integration process and agreed-to with the merger – may not ultimately matter for customers of the airline.

But things are far from rosy in labor land at the New American. It always struck me odd that the American Airlines pilots were so vociferously in favor of merging with US Airways given this history.

It’s also one reason why – when all is said and done and the integration is complete – this management team will have accomplished something truly impressive. And while I always said I preferred an independent standalone American Airlines over a merged one, and cookies and meals generally notwithstanding, things are overall better than expected.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Interesting and insightful – also thanks for not titling this “5 things you need to know about AA labor relations” or “The ONE thing AA doesn’t want you to know about their pilots’ union”

  2. But this is only the beginning. US Air and America West have had 9 years of problems. United roughly 4 years. Delta escaped a lot of this. American had problems with merging with TWA and Reno Air. I have a feeling that this will continue as a problem for at least 3 more years. If enough pilots vote yes, this could be fast thing. But, with pilots? Don’t count on it.

  3. The East Pilots didn’t know how to play with others which caused all the problems, it was their way or highway and we know what happened.. At AA both side East and West will make it and get a raise, now what the east pilots know is, there are more AA pilots then east pilots and if it came to a vote, the east pilots will lose.

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