American’s Pilots Have to Claim to Be Really Unhappy If They’re Going to Ever Be Happy

American’s pilots claim to be unhappy.

American Airlines pilot leaders say a meeting with top company executives left them discouraged about prospects for a real change in culture at the world’s largest airline.

The glum outlook followed talks Wednesday with Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker and his lieutenants about the airline’s operational performance, employee benefits, scheduling practices and long-term financial and balance sheet concerns, said the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing 15,000 American workers.

“To characterize the APA board of directors as underwhelmed by management’s lack of any apparent plan for the long-promised culture change would be a gross understatement,” according to a message posted on the union’s website. “In discussions after the meeting, the board consensus was that management’s dismissive response cast considerable doubt on prospects for lasting change.”

American Airlines Boeing 787

This is important because although American and US Airways have merged, and from a customer-facing standpoint are a single carrier (albeit with very different legacy products that the airline is slow to update), work groups are not yet on the same system and pilots do not yet have a single seniority list that will allow the airline to function as one.

There are still planes attached to destinations and crews, and that prevents American from matching the right equipment to the right route and optimize aircraft so that expensive capital equipment gets the most efficient use possible as well. In other words, many of the merger’s promised synergies remain on the table.

The message from the airline though has consistently been the opposite of confrontational in response. Instead of blasting this message, they’ve accepted it and taken it on as a challenge. They’ve stated over and over they’re committed to the best possible employee relations. They’ve offered up profit sharing without asking for anything in return. And CEO Doug Parker has given up his employment contract as well.

At the same time, it’s not at all surprising to see frustrations in labor relations. If we didn’t, that would be the shock.

Hanger on the edge of DFW Airport

American Airlines wound up taken over by US Airways largely because of two things:

  1. Doug Parker’s willingness to overpay for the asset, a decision that’s either been vindicated or covered up by fuel prices that dropped like a rock shortly afterward. Even equity holders got a payout when American emerged from bankruptcy.

  2. Poor labor relations at American. American’s pilots effectively decided that existing management had to go, and underscored it with a work slowdown. Labor unions at American cast their lot with a merger.

The merger was something American Airlines employees wished for which seemed very strange at the time considering US Airways’ history.

  • 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.

  • US Airways had gone through two bankruptcies. As a ‘failed carrier,’ 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).

  • But with more US Airways pilots than America West pilots, the former broke off to form their own union — whose purpose was to privilege US Airways pilots over their America West brethren.

Somehow an airline that couldn’t successfully merge pilot workgroups years after a merger was going to lead to labor peace when trying to merge three airlines at once. But the American merger was supposed to solve US Airways labor problems once and for all — since those employees would be getting raises to bring them up to American Airlines wages.

And with plenty of profits thanks to low fuel prices, they’ve been able to do just that… though those profits also lead to rising expectations.

Various American Airlines aircraft, 2013

American’s leadership clearly knows that pilots can bring an airline to its knees. It’s a large part of how they got to take over American Airlines in the first place. In January the head of the American Airlines pilot union blasted a ‘culture gone awry’ after the merger. Now the drum beat from the pilots continues, and the response from American is we’re working on it.

“Driving this culture change is our priority and it is about showing our employees, including our pilots, that we have their backs and we are here to support them,” said Joshua Freed, a spokesman for American Airlines Group Inc. “We are more committed than ever to getting this right.”

The airline already has begun work on improving hotel accommodations for pilots and flight attendants and employee break rooms, and gaining better access to jump seats or cabins used by off-duty crew members, he said.

One the one hand, the airline really is making an effort here. They’re spending money and they’re giving on quality of life issues too.

On the other hand labor relations at US Airways were a problem before the merger, and they were a problem at American before the merger too. Add in that pilot expectations have certainly risen given the profits the airline is generating, and that doesn’t give you labor peace.

Furthermore, given the history of contentious relations between the pilot work groups, union leadership needs to bring everyone together by focusing their frustrations on management and can only speak for their membership if they’re seen as successfully bringing things to their membership through an adversarial process. It’s a dangerous game both sides are playing to thread this needle.

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. I think the sad reality is that it is impossible to make a pilot group at any unionized airline “happy.” Look at Southwest, famous for their great labor relations. Their pilots, the best paid in the industry, are also unhappy. They’ve been picketing, and doing all the things unhappy unionized employees do.

    Whatever you think of unions, the obvious conclusion to draw from these continuous management-pilot clashes is that it’s a very bad idea to allow highly-paid and highly skilled employees to join unions. It doesn’t do the employees any good and it doesn’t do their employers any good. All it leads to is friction and unhappiness. I’m sure the sociologists would say it’s tribal. Good luck trying to change the law, though.

  2. I was a flight attendant for an airline where the pilots were unionized, but the flight attendants were not. Full disclosure I was never in favor of unionizing. Case in points- a conversation I had with a friend/coworker:
    Friend: We need a union bad.
    Me: Why?
    Friend: They have a lot of benefits. Protection. Management does whatever the %$#& they want now with no one to answer to.
    Me: I know, it’s like a job in the real world or something!
    Friend: We just need some protection.
    Me: From what?
    Friend: Management.
    Me: And what did they do to hurt you recently?
    Friend: Nothing to me personally. But they are just trying to %$&# us. Like the call out point system. They don’t want you to use FMLA.
    Me: Yes, because management is dead set on running this airline into the ground by making you unhappy and wanting employees to show up to work.
    Friend then changes subject.

    This is how a lot of conversations with pro-union employees go. I know that a company sometimes doesn’t take employees’ best interests at heart. But when I think about how LONG it takes to get anything done with unionized workers, it just makes my head hurt. Nothing the company could offer will ever be enough. I was happy with my job and my work rules. But then again, I consider myself a realistic person who knew what I was getting into when I applied to fly.

  3. @iahphx : Union bashing is a very popular pastime encouraged by vested interests . Too bad you have fallen for it .
    I was considered highly skilled by my employers as were fellow union members . I know we helped a lot of contractors make a lot of money because they told us so and rewarded us beyond our mandated pay rate .
    It is a myth that unions and employers can not both profit from working together . As the adage ” A rising tide raises all boats . ” Union activities have raised the pay and the standards for all workers .

  4. @Dalo — It’s not “union bashing” to say that unions work poorly for highly paid employees. It is indisputable that it creates an “us vs. them” culture that’s usually toxic. There’s a reason unions are so rare in private sector America: they don’t work very well. You can count on one hand the number of jobs that pay as well as pilots that are unionized. It’s just a weird and regrettable throwback to another era.

  5. @iahhx , we do disagree and strongly . What you claim is not bashing I believe definitely is . What you define as indisputable is definitely disputable . You claim that Unions can not work for employees with compensation comparable to pilots . My personal experience contradicts this also .
    There is an extremely well funded effort to convince people that Unions are evil . The object of this effort is your ‘throwback to another era ‘ That is the era of the robber barons .
    I’m sorry to hear you have fallen for this propaganda .

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