May 26, 2007

Pilots unhappy with US Airways weigh options

They claim to have a common cause in pressing management for a joint contract, but US Airways pilots are hardly of like mind in how they should integrate their work forces.

While pilots from the former America West Airlines picketed Thursday at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, pilots from the old East Coast-based US Airways met with union higher-ups, virtually threatening sedition.

“We will use every legal means to defend our pilots and what we perceive to be their rights,” said Richard Obermeyer, who represents the East Coast pilots group.

Obermeyer said a strike, which is not legal option, is out of the question. He would not say if the group would dump the Air Line Pilots Association representation if union leaders don’t support their cause.

“There is no option that is legal that is not on the table,” he said. “We are very serious about this. There are options. That’s all I can say.”

America West Airlines and then-East Coast-based US Airways merged in 2005 and the two pilot groups have been working on getting a single contract for more than a year, often upbraiding airline management for not being willing to compromise.

Two weeks ago, Tempebased US Airways offered pilots a new deal.

The West Coast pilots said, “No deal,” emphasizing their point Thursday by picketing at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

A rolling billboard circling the airport proclaimed the pilots’ contention that, “US Airways management’s fairy tales are passengers’ nightmares.”

US Airways management has agreed to give pilots the better terms of the two old contracts, US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder said.

The latest offer accomplishes that, said John Spannagel, spokesman for the America West pilots. But that’s not good enough, he said.

“It was woefully inadequate,” Spannagel said. “The pay scale was below the industry average, and the benefits plan was insulting.”

But it appears the pilots have a bigger breakdown looming within their own ranks.

The East and West pilots are miles apart on seniority, which affects everything from pay to promotion to who gets furloughed first in down-sizing times.

US Airways has to approve the seniority list, Wunder said, but left it up to the union to come up with one that integrates the two work forces.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents both pilot groups, assigned an arbitrator to devise the joint seniority list. The result, Spannagel said, “is final and binding, according to the America West pilots. We are ready to move forward with it. And that’s all America West pilots will say about that.”

East Coast pilots don’t see it that way. Obermeyer said the list, as compiled, would provide a “windfall” to the former America West pilots and cheat long-time US Airways pilots of their rank.

The “old US Airways” pilots called on the Air Line Pilots Association’s executive council to dump the list and start over. Or else.

ALPA leaders have been meeting all week. As of late Thursday, no decision was announced.

Here is a simplified version of the procedure used to compile the list, according to both groups.

Since size of aircraft figures into the seniority consideration, the first 500 or so spaces were reserved for East Coast pilots who fly wide-bodied airplanes. America West did not have any wide-bodies, and has no pilots in that category.

Then the two lists, each sorted by hire date, were laid sideby-side, and the integrated list was compiled by alternating pilots from each list according to a ratio based on the size of each work force.

But because America West was a much younger airline, an East Coast pilot with an hire date of 1988, for example, could fall below a West Coast pilot with a hire date of 2000, Obermeyer said.

The arbitrator also erred by putting active pilots from US Airways subsidiaries at the bottom of the list as though those pilots were furloughed, Obermeyer said. That impacted 300 East Coast-based pilots, he said.

“The arbitrator made a factual error, creating a distorted list,” Obermeyer said. Lisa Richardson, a spokeswoman for the America West pilots, said some in the West also were unhappy because of the 500-plus slots at the top saved for the US Airways widebodied aircraft pilots. US Airways spokeswoman Wunder said the company would not get involved in the pilots’ internal disputes. A local pilots union spokeswoman also would not comment on the situation.

Source: East Valley Tribune

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