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Entries in History of United Airlines (2)

Monday
Nov172008

Autos & Airlines: Similarities are Frightening

The auto industry faces many of the very same issues that the airline industry faces, and faced, albeit the inherent inefficiencies were exposed by different exogenous events. Today’s credit crisis has exposed decades of leveraged inefficiencies...

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Wednesday
Aug132008

Campaign Season: Little Substance and Fewer Facts

At least in the race for the US Presidency, a winner will be declared. In the corporate campaigns being run by the American and United pilots against their respective employers, no one wins. 25 years ago, corporate campaigns had some effect as they were new. They are often targeted at individuals, either senior executives or board members in hopes of exposing something “dirty” in exchange for leverage that can be traded at the bargaining table. As we have written here before, this upcoming round of labor negotiations is odd in that neither side has significant leverage and the most important in history since the industry was deregulated.

So the pilots, the “professionals”, the “flying investment bankers”, at United and American have taken to erecting billboards, calling for the heads of their CEO, challenging executive compensation schemes, talking openly about safety and ensuring that each carrier’s operating statistics remain in the press long after they have been reported - all the while hiding behind the veil of improving the product for each carrier's customer base. And hiding behind the financial and still unknown economic condition of the industry. What a laughable approach that promises no more leverage than what they have today as the path to a Presidential Emergency Board is carved.

I could have entitled this blog: The Summer of 2008 Part II.

Presidential Campaign

Like many I talk to, I am disappointed that we have not heard peep #1 of substance from either McCain or Obama on transportation issues generally and nothing on the airline industry specifically as they march toward the November general election. Some band-aid ideas on energy from Obama and the energy solutions suggested by McCain would have a long road to hoe to be implemented. Nonetheless, I am disappointed at this juncture that little is being discussed regarding this battered industry.

Corporate Campaign(s)

My view of the antics undertaken by the Allied Pilots Association and their current leadership, who still can claim that they represent 8,300 airmen at American Airlines, has been well documented in this blog. But most of the unprofessional behavior demonstrated by this current administration has been displayed by leadership of this independent union during every other cycle in the past.

Not so long ago, a desperate grasp for leverage only cost APA’s members $45 million in dues dollars. Today, their inflexible bargaining position based on a dream and actions undertaken against the employer to try and bully the employer to accept their outlandish ask could cost the American pilot membership more. Maybe much more. But they have been there before………. And I am still betting that this one gets put on ice and lands before a Presidential Emergency Board 18 months from now - long after the Delta and Northwest pilots begin to enjoy the improved terms of their new collective bargaining agreement that required the loss of certain legacy mindsets.

One thing that has always perplexed me about this industry, and I was persuaded to pursue the same actions in my past as a union leader: why do this industry’s unions perpetually make deals that minimize the headcount reduction while maximizing the pay cut undertaken by all employees? I have talked about how the industry has always over-expanded in the up cycles and never taken enough uneconomic capacity out in the down cycles. Well the same is true with labor.

The unions choose bigger paycuts to preserve jobs in the down cycles. Stated another way, pay cuts have masked the fact that legacy labor has engaged in bargaining practices that have made them less and less productive in the down cycles. These practices then lead to the airline hiring more employees than needed in the subsequent up cycle. This is a classic example of another inefficiency that has compounded itself over three decades of deregulation. But no, we will try to injure the entire membership to protect 200. Makes a strong cost-benefit analysis case don’t you think?

Corporate Campaign #2: United Pilots Call for Tilton to Resign

I was beginning to believe that the corporate campaign season would be limited to the independent union suspects: APA; and USAPA. But no, we are now joined by the United Airlines chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. [And anyone that knows a few things about ALPA politics know about the cowboys at United.] First we have a public cry challenging the safe maintenance of their airplanes by the company’s own mechanics. Then we have the claim of an unlawful action on the part of the union by the company. Now we have the pilots at United calling for their CEO’s head.

This Is Nothing New......

A little history would be helpful here. Let’s take a walk down memory lane of United pilot and CEO relationships. In 1981 I believe, the United pilots made a significant concessionary pact in productivity to the company called “Blue Skies”. The subsequent negotiations between the company and the pilots did not return those concessions to the pilots and the result was a six-week strike in May of 1985.

The pilots claimed that Richard Ferris, who remained Chairman and CEO following the strike, was diverting money from the airline to invest in Westin and Hertz, a combination that ultimately became known as Allegis and included United Airlines. The United pilots hire F. Lee Bailey and began a push to buy the company following the end of their strike. Ferris was pushed out and the company sold its interests in Hilton and Hertz along the way. The CEO and Chairman chairs were held warm until Stephen Wolf was named head of the airline in late 1987.

But the pilots at United were exercising their power over being disgruntled with Ferris’s actions and were making headway toward a leveraged buyout until “Black Monday” – the market crash in October of 1987. Yes, the stock market crash in October of 1987 ended their initial bid. A failed attempt where the pilot union still paid its advisors some $16 million. Ever think how much that was in 1987?

Then, in walks Wolf in late 1987, a deal-friendly CEO that had cashed out nicely at each Republic Airlines and the Flying Tiger Line. By late 1989, Wolf was Chairman and CEO, the Allegis name was dropped and the subsidiaries sold. As Wolf’s tenure in the Chairman and CEO chair began, the economics of the industry were generally strong. Then came 1991. High oil prices and a recession. In 1993, Wolf turned to the unions seeking concessions from contracts negotiated in a much better economic period. [What we did not know at the time was that an inside ALPA lawyer would be financially rewarded for being an intermediary to turn these talks from simple concessions to the vehicle that would be used to sell the company to the employees] The company sold the flight kitchens following a near $1 billion loss in 1992.

The 1993 concession negotiations ultimately led to the ESOP structure that was closed in July of 1994. Nearly seven years after their initial attempts, the United pilots had their wish. Wolf was paid off handsomely and in came former Chrysler CEO Gerry Greenwald to head the company and usher in this new era of employee relations. Greenwald was hand-picked by ALPA to head the new airline, as was his number 2, John Edwardson. And the pilot advisors were paid yet another $16 million in the process.

Employee seats on the board were negotiated with unprecedented and unhealthy corporate governance power. Greenwald makes himself a lame duck during this period by announcing half way through that he would only fulfill the initial 5-year term of his agreement. My guess is he fully appreciated that the economics and the governance construct would inevitably lead to a bad outcome. He left in 1999.

During 1998, employees that had made concessions to buy the airline were entitled to begin negotiating interim wage increases. Management recognized that the increases being sought could not be sustained. Then, using their power at the board level, ALPA and the IAM voiced strong opposition to John Edwardson – the chief opponent - and he was ultimately replaced by Jim Goodwin. Goodwin, was another President and COO that needed the blessing of the unions. Then in early 1999, following Greenwald’s departure, Goodwin was named Chairman and CEO.

The ESOP construct ended in 2000. But as the ESOP construct was ending, which meant that United had to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements with all of its bargaining units except the flight attendants, Goodwin began to pursue a merger with US Airways. Labor tensions mounted as the merger now posed many issues that could negatively impact the outcome of their negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement.

The pilots ultimately won a ransome-like contract, based in part on their actions, that made virtually their entire portfolio of international flying unprofitable. Further the contract established a false market on the rates the industry could afford to pay for pilot labor. Ultimately the US Airways bid was abandoned in 2001. Then the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, exactly one-year after ALPA agreed to accept its ransome. And surprise, surprise: as the unions still possessed the extraordinary governance powers negotiated during the ESOP transaction, Goodwin was gone by November of 2001. His chair was held warm by board member Jack Creighton until a successor could be found.

Like the rest of the industry, United suffered in the aftermath of 9/11. The company began negotiations with all of its unions seeking an unprecedented give of $2.5 billion annually. Creighton retires, as he was not the one to lead this company through this difficult period. With governance powers still in place, ALPA, the IAM and the board replace the retiring Creighton with Glenn Tilton. The former oil executive will be the one to lead United into, and out of, bankruptcy protection. Remember, it was ALPA that hired Tilton - like many before him citing that it was one expensive hire but definitely the very best of the candidates interviewed.

Concluding Thoughts

Now United is nearing the time to begin negotiations to replace the consensual agreements reached while the company was in bankruptcy. One of Tilton’s strongest attributes upon his hiring was his familiarity with the bankruptcy process so I guess in some ways that makes him a restructuring guy. It did not take him long to recognize that the negotiations with the unions that were concluded prior to the filing on December 9, 2002, were not going to be enough. And I do not think that Glenn believes the work is done at United yet.

For years, the United pilots have taken to calling for the head of each and every CEO that said no. They were more than willing to put in place those they believed would say yes. But even they had to say no at some point and when they did - they were gone. Tilton has said no and continues to say no so that means that the United pilots should keep with what they know and call for his head. But any good restructuring guy knows when the work is done and when it is not done. Many have stayed too long. I don’t think this will be the case as United works toward righting its operation in anticipation of an alliance with Continental Airlines.

I think some history is important for those looking at the United pilots calling for Tilton’s head as a significant event. It is not significant. It is nothing more than a piece of a tired, three-decade old tactic that the United pilots are using in Corporate Campaign 2008. If the United pilots are serious, as they were in the mid 1980’s, then buy the company again. Otherwise there are two choices: be creative and constructive; or be legacy-minded and destructive. United probably has a liquidation value that shareholders might just view as attractive.

I love how history repeats itself in this industry. This blog was largely written from memory as I have spent a lot of my life at United in these dealings. I am sure that I will be corrected if I have made a mistake on the chain of events.

And further, isn’t it interesting that on the day the pilots call for Tilton’s head, the Delta and Northwest pilots approve a new collective bargaining agreement that will be in place when the merger of the two companies is finally approved. At least at some carriers represented by ALPA there are constructive actions being undertaken to address a changing world.

More to come.