Seeking new pact, U.S. Airways pilots picket in Philadelphia

At Philadelphia International Airport, pilots picket outside Terminal A. They are seeking a contract with US Airways.
At Philadelphia International Airport, pilots picket outside Terminal A. They are seeking a contract with US Airways.
Posted: September 09, 2010

The picket signs demanded better pay and a new contract. Those carrying them outside Philadelphia International Airport's International Terminal on Wednesday were not garden-variety protesters.

They were 150 US Airways Group Inc. pilots, spiffily uniformed and walking in silence to express frustration that five years after the America West Airlines-US Airways merger, the 5,200 pilots and 6,700 flight attendants at the combined carrier still don't have a joint collective-bargaining agreement.

Philadelphia's dominant airline operates essentially two airlines, with separate aircraft, crews, and flight schedules based on old US Airways and former America West routes.

"We've been trying to negotiate a contract with this company for five years," said a pilots' union spokesman, Capt. James Ray. "They pass garbage across the table to us. We're tired. We're frustrated. We want to see some results."

A US Airways spokesman said Wednesday that talks were continuing with the pilots but that they needed to resolve seniority issues among themselves.

Pilots who went through US Airways bankruptcies in 2002 and 2004 say they lost half their pay and their pension. Now, the carrier is on an even keel - with top executives collecting millions in stock options - and it's time for employees to get a just contract, they say.

"We sacrificed to keep the company flying, and to keep our jobs," said Mike Flores, president of US Airways' East Coast Association of Flight Attendants, who joined in the pilots' march. "There comes a time you expect that loyalty to be reciprocated."

Although US Airways flight crews work under 2004 contracts that are "25 percent below the industry average," said Ray, the dispute is more complicated.

Pilots have been embroiled in litigation over seniority and integrating seniority lists of the predecessor airlines.

The scenario might have played out differently had pilots in 2007 accepted a binding-arbitration decision that put 571 US Airways international pilots at the top in seniority, ahead of other active pilots with less experience.

But controversy arose over 1,600 pilots on furlough in 2005 who were put at the bottom in seniority, even though their dates of hire were earlier than those of some active pilots.

The decision, which the union and company had pledged ahead of time to abide by, rankled pilots from the East - the old US Airways - who contended that America West pilots had less experience and should not be ahead of them.

Seniority is key to determining pay, promotions, vacation schedules, flight routes, and job security.

Robert Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., who worked on seniority integration for the Delta-Northwest merger and the US Air Shuttle, said: "There was a failure of leadership here.

"The company was presented with a seniority list that they accepted" but did not enforce, Mann said.

After the arbitrator's ruling, US Airways' eastern pilots quickly moved to decertify their union, ALPA, and by a majority vote set up USAPA as their collective-bargaining agent.

Initially, US Airways saved money by paying flight crews at 2004 bankruptcy rates. But the contracts also limited management to arcane aircraft and hourly rules that were costly, Mann said.

US Airways this summer asked a federal court in Arizona for a declaratory judgment, to narrow the issues for the company in moving forward.

US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said negotiations were continuing between pilots and management, overseen by the National Mediation Board. "A contract can't really be hammered out until the seniority issue is resolved," he said.

"We are remaining neutral. We want our pilots to resolve it so we can move forward on negotiating the contract with them."

US Airways and America West flight attendants merged seniority lists without lawsuits or battles.

"We went right into negotiations and have been at it the last four years," Flores said. "It's just the company is unwilling to get out of their bankruptcy-era contracts. They are dragging their feet at the bargaining table."


Contact staff writer Linda Loyd

at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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