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Tuesday
Oct132009

US Pilot Unions’ Dirty Little Secrets

I keep waiting for real leadership to emerge from labor unions in the US airline industry, particularly from pilot unions.  During past down cycles, pilot unions could be found taking the lead in creating a nuanced solution that addressed a company’s competitive needs and the concerns of pilots they represent.  The template crafted by pilot union leaders in the past often formed the framework for companies seeking help from the non-pilot workforce.

Today, more often than not, I see the work of pilot unions doing more to pose a barrier to an airline’s success than to promote it.  To be fair, the unions at Delta, Alaska and Southwest get credit for smart leadership. But the same can’t be said at other airlines, and here’s one reason why.

The legacy carriers all operate as part of networks that have formed over time, through mergers; asset buys; regulatory frameworks; and, importantly, union influence.  By this I refer in part to the dirty little secret in pilot union contracts: “scope” clauses that too often hamstring an airline’s operations in the name of job protection for pilots.

The question we in the industry should be asking is whether those scope clauses are really serving that purpose or, rather, whether some union leaders are using them in a way that is both misguided and harmful to the pilots they represent.

Evolve, Adapt, Reinvent – Or Risk Irrelevance

The ability of mainline carriers to employ regional jets is not new to the industry.  Neither is the ability of mainline carriers to engage in international code sharing arrangements with foreign airlines.   Both activities are governed by scope clauses in each carrier’s collective bargaining agreements with pilot unions. And before we go any further, let’s remember that the language in these collective bargaining agreements is just that – collectively bargained between the management and the unions. 

Much of what I have written at swelblog.com over the past two years has probably earned my picture a place on the dartboard at most pilot union offices. And this column is not intended to resurrect my image with certain pilot leaders in any way.  It’s just that union presidents are really the CEOs of their organizations and they deserve the same scrutiny as do airline CEOs.

And yes, I’ll name names. One is Captain Lloyd Hill who is president of the Allied Pilots Association – which represents only the pilots of American Airlines.  Another is John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots across the industry. After watching Captain Hill’s misguided attempts to garner leverage for AA pilots during contract negotiations and Captain Prater’s recent embarrassing diatribes before the House Aviation Subcommittee’s hearings on aviation safety, even I feel sympathy for the pilots they attempt to represent.

Captain Lloyd Hill

In the early days of the blog, I wrote a lot about American Airlines and its strained relations with the APA’s Hill administration.  The union was antagonistic toward the company from the very start and began negotiations with an outrageous opening proposal that demanded, among other things, a pay increase of more than 50 percent. I suggested then that it would be a long time before a deal will be reached with these players at the table. 

Two full years later, there is not only no deal, but not even the scent of a deal in the air.  And from my read of the contract cases now before the National Mediation Board, I could make a case that it will be at least two more years before American and the APA reach agreement or a NMB-declared impasse is declared.  But I will leave it to the APA membership and the Las Vegas odds makers to analyze what needs to change in order to improve the odds of a new working agreement.

Never before in my experience have I seen a more misdirected, miscalculated and mismanaged mess of a negotiation by a union.  And because we can all read Hill’s playbook and it’s clear he’s not moving the ball down the field, he keeps going back to his current whipping boy -- the “immunized alliance” the company is trying to achieve through a joint business agreement with British Airways and Iberia.  After calling the same play on second and third down, I am thinking that this fourth down attempt will result in a loss as well. 

Last week the APA issued yet another press release urging the DOT to dismiss American’s application. But this time, the APA was joined in its hollow and transparent opposition by ALPA.   In this case, ALPA was less strident, choosing not to oppose alliances generally but instead to urge DOT to ensure that jobs at US airlines are not eroded as a result of international partnerships.

“As a result of two significant developments during the past several days, we urge the DOT to decline American Airlines’ application for worldwide antitrust immunity,” Hill said in the APA release. “The first of those developments was the EC’s announcement earlier this month that American Airlines’ plans may violate rules governing restrictive business practices. Given those stated concerns, we question the advisability of granting approval to a deal that may fail to pass muster with the DOT’s European counterparts.

“Closer to home, American Airlines management has refused to provide industry-standard job protections for our pilots, despite APA’s concerted efforts,” Hill added. “We can only conclude that our worst fears would be realized in the event American Airlines is permitted to proceed with what amounts to a virtual merger with British Airways and Iberia.

No Captain Hill, your worst fears should not be this alliance.  You see, your contract permits this arrangement and if this type of commercial activity were to be prohibited, your actions in fighting the alliance will all but ensure fewer US jobs – they may be primarily narrowbody jobs but US jobs nonetheless.  Maybe you should begin negotiating with the company with realistic and market-sensitive proposals rather than filing petty grievance after grievance that has resulted in a further weakening of your negotiating position.  Maybe you should stop putting up billboards openly criticizing your employer on product reliability and safety issues because trying to hurt the company that employs your members is no good path to trying to improve their contract.  

Maybe the goal of “restoring the profession” should be to recognize a changed environment and figure out how best the members you represent can prosper under the new economic reality.  

Maybe your dirty little secret is that you do not know how to tell your members that your strategy to “restore the profession” has failed.  But the real sad part is the real losers are the professional aviators who deserve better from their union leaders.

Captain John Prater

Over at ALPA, the world’s largest pilot union, we have John Prater at the helm. Prater won the election to head ALPA by beating out his predecessor, the very skilled and seasoned Duane Woerth, on a platform that overpromised and is sure to under-deliver. Over the years some of the very best union leaders in the airline business have come from ALPA:  J.J. O’Donnell; Hank Duffy; Randy Babbitt and Woerth to name a few, and that doesn’t include a line of great leaders during the union’s formative years.

Now we have ALPA testifying before Congress in ways that are not becoming of past ALPA leaders.  Prater testified at the September 23 hearing on the crash of Colgan Air 3407 about a number of safety initiatives ALPA is promoting across the regional spectrum. But he also spoke about the relationship between mainline carriers and their regional partners in a way I find troubling.

Prater attributed what he called the “low-experience pilot problem” to the mainline airlines’ business model. 

“Mainline airlines are frequently faced with pressures on their marketing plans that result in the use of the regional feed code-share partners, whether they be economic, passenger demand or essential air service,” he said. “These code-share or fee-for-departure (FFD) contracts with smaller or regional airlines provide this service and feed the mainline carriers through their hub cities.”

Before mainline airlines had regional partners, Prater said, all flying was done by the pilots of an airline on a single pilot-seniority list, where pilots were trained to and met the same higher-than-minimum regulatory standards."

“A safety benefit is derived from all flying being done from a single pilot-seniority list because it requires that first officers fly with many captains and learn from their experience and wisdom before becoming captains themselves,” Prater said.

Now, he argued, major airlines use multiple, regional “vendor” carriers to drive down their costs, a practice he said “harms safety”  because first officers on regional airlines can become captains within a year and “fail to gain the experience and judgment needed to safely act in that capacity.”

Prater goes on:  “When a regional airline operates a route for a mainline carrier and offers subpar wages and benefits, only low-experience pilots, who cannot qualify for a job with a better paying airline, are typically willing to accept such employment. It is not uncommon that training at such carriers is conducted only to FAA-required minimums. However, these low-experience pilots obviously need more training than more experienced airline pilots to gain equivalent knowledge of the operating environment, aircraft, and procedures before flying the line.”

Later, in questioning by members of the committee, Prater insinuated that airlines involved in the crash, as well as other carriers that ALPA is in contract negotiations with, are continuing work practices that may compromise safety.

"The managements at Pinnacle and Colgan have not changed their ways. The management at Trans States Airlines haven't changed their ways. Do I need to go further? I have a big book," Prater told the subcommittee. He then suggested that carriers were actually punishing Captains that report maintenance issues with their aircraft, concluding: "Some managements are still insisting that they are going to beat their pilots into submission."

What Prater fails to share is ALPA’s dirty little secret: that the wage rates, working conditions, training provisions and other particulars he criticizes were negotiated by his union. ALPA represents the majority of regional pilots flying in the US today.  So maybe ALPA needs to step up and take some responsibility for its contribution to building this sector of the industry.  Only by agreeing to lower rates of pay and more flying time at the regional carriers can ALPA justify and sustain the generous pay, benefits and work rules that benefit pilots at the mainline airlines. 

Look at any significant relaxation of the scope clause at the mainline carrier that allows the airline to increase its use of jets 70 seats or less. In just about every case the mainline pilots received a significant pay boost in return for that “concession.”

The fact is that ALPA has played a major role in creating the labor Ponzi scheme that survives at the legacy airlines. How does ALPA find a way to pay another group of new pilots less in order to buy “better” contracts for the regional pilots it now represents? It can’t. And you can bet that ALPA would not ask its mainline pilots to take a pay cut to help increase the wages for pilots flying at their regional counterparts.  A conundrum indeed.

Concluding Thoughts

Labor leaders in the pilot ranks would have you believe that this (international code sharing and the use of regional flying) is all about management abusing provisions of their collective bargaining agreements to enrich their shareholders.  In fact, the creation of B-Scale constructs and the relaxation of scope provisions has been labor’s “quid” in return for increases in compensation and benefits for 20+ years [the “quo].”  Even when the industry economics suggested the quo was too much.  As I have said here before, labor likes to “eat their young.”  This is an issue that is fundamental to the difficulty of today’s negotiating environment.

Hill and Prater are resorting to 1920’s tactics rather than trying to lead pilots in a new world of airline economics. Labor’s “Old New Deal” cannot be supported by today’s competitive environment.  What is needed is a “New New Deal”. It will not look anything like the “Old New Deal” to be sure.  Just as airline executives have been forced to adapt to new economics shaping the industry, labor, too, must adapt because it has no more young to consume to keep senior pilots fat and happy.

It is hard to be at the top - whether looking for necessary capital or creatively searching to support the expectations of pilots.    

Tuesday
Jun172008

10 Airline Issues That Have My Attention

Note: at 634pm I made some minor edits to the orginal post. Immediately after posting, a personal issue arose that required immediate attention. I apologize.

But before we go there I will share my favorite headline of the week gone by: Congress, get off your gas, and drill!

1. Crandall

It is interesting to me that Gordon Bethune has gone quiet for the most part and has now been replaced by Crandall. The entire industry recognizes what Crandall recognizes and that there is little obvious cost cutting that remains other than capacity cuts and that the revenue line must become the focus for the industry. The interesting note to all of Crandall's suggestions for some form of reregulation is how US airline labor generally, and American Airlines' labor specifically, are hanging on his words of late. Is it Crandall the leader or the suggestion of reregulating the industry? Crandall the leader would not be handing out big increases in compensation in this fuel environment; yet Crandall the re-regulator is the silver bullet that would enable the industry to charge enough for an airline ticket to offer a return of the concessions and still employ all 400,000+ people that remain in the industry?

2. IATA Annual General Meeting

Mark Pilling of Airline Business writes Airline bosses call for strict capacity discipline following IATA’s Annual General Meeting last week in Istanbul. This piece is good reporting on the differing levels of cuts being considered around the globe. With the US undertaking the most aggressive actions: Europe is now beginning the process of how to react; the Asia-Pacific carriers are exiting some routes but redeploying capacity to other more promising routes; and the Middle East is continuing on their aggressive growth path. Is the industry serious about capacity discipline this time and will we really put capacity down as a reaction to outside forces and inherent inefficiencies? Or is this just a time out?

3. Labor PR and of Course Fuel Does Not Matter

I did not think I would see ALPA take a page out of APA’s tired play book, but they have. On Sunday night, the following appeared: labor Relations Darken at Hawaiian Airlines. But my favorite story in this topic area was written last week as Continental pilots picket for higher pay, benefits. I have no issue regarding a union’s right to picket. But I do have an issue with yet another irresponsible statement from a labor leader. In the Continental story, Captain John Prater, President of ALPA is quoted as saying: “Don't try to use the price of gas," said Prater. "The industry is unstable, and the only way to add labor stability is through a solid contract." What does that mean? Of course the price of gas will have absolutely nothing to do with the outcomes of negotiated agreements John [emphasis added]. With so many things happening in the interesting Hawaii market, I only wish I could write on some of them.

4. European Carriers

Over the last few months, stories have been appearing that suggest the underlying fundamentals in the European market are weakening. Austrian Airlines has suggested the carrier will seek a strategic partner. We all know of the woes at Alitalia. Among the Big 3 in Europe, British Airways has been warning of turbulence ahead for the carrier in the face of high oil prices and the carrier’s exposure to the weakening US market. And now there are even rumblings from Lufthansa and Air France/KLM. For each of those two carriers the revenue synergies have been captured through their acquisitions. Now there will be a renewed focus on costs. Finally, the US is not alone.

5. Asian Carriers

For me, things were starting to get interesting in this critical world region immediately following Singapore’s earnings announcement in February that was less than stellar. Then Cathay Pacific suggested it would begin to curb capacity growth. Then Qantas. Each of these carriers has a place on the list of global elite airlines and are not immune from the environment either. AFP reports that Oil costs will push some Asian airlines under: analysts. Thinking about it, this region’s airlines carry passengers long distances and we know that the price of fuel and long-haul flying are not in concert today in all markets. In the article it is suggested that the region’s airlines are not close to doing enough and that SARS-like capacity actions should be considered in some cases. With or without high oil prices though, this region is certain to lose airlines along the way given its early stages of development.

6. Boeing and Airbus – A Couple of Things

Julie Johnnson of the Chicago Tribune writes that Foreign carriers' woes could hurt jetmakers. I have heard that some deliveries will be deferred. Certainly today’s issues will only prolong the needed replacement programs for the US industry, except for Southwest, Continental, AirTran and others. The manufacturers and lessors cite the fact that aircraft can be quickly placed into another carrier’s portfolio if positions or newer generation aircraft come available. But we still have not felt the full effects of the economy’s headwinds in my judgment.

At the same time the manufacturers are doing the industry no favors by perpetually delaying the delivery of the new generation aircraft that promise significant efficiencies and fuel savings. I found it most interesting in Continental’s announcement last week that it would park its older aircraft but continue to take delivery of new aircraft. This will be a story to watch.

7. Liquidity and US Airline Equities

Bill Greene, Morgan Stanley’s airline analyst, published another very good piece of research today where he continued to write on his tipping point theme. He writes: Too soon to begin buying US airlines, in our view. "As we’ve written in the past, we believe that amid the current macro backdrop, airlines will not become attractive investments until the industry reaches a Tipping Point - when extremely bearish fundamentals trigger broad, acute financial distress and restructuring that leads to significant capacity reductions (beyond current announcements); thus, serving as a very bullish catalyst for shares in surviving airlines. After updating our estimates for $130/bbl oil, it appears that a Tipping Point catalyst is more a question of when rather than if."

In Greene’s liquidity analysis of his tipping point theory, some very interesting findings are expressed. I have written often of liquidity concerns and that this period’s focus will remain firmly on the balance sheet and the cash flow statement. Yes we are in a cash burn scenario yet again. As Greene analyzes the airlines he covers, he points to the steeply downward sloping liquidity positions for each of the carriers assuming $3.81 jet fuel and taking into account all fixed obligations between now and the end of 2009.

Through 2009, he ranks the US airlines he covers from worst to best in terms of liquidity: US Airways, and a need to raise $1.5 billion to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; American, and a need to raise $2.6 billion to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; Northwest, and a need to raise $856 million to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; Continental, and a need to raise $260 million to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; United, and a need to raise $290 million to maintain a liquidity balance equal to 10 percent of last 12 month revenues; Delta with no need to raise cash; and jetBlue, with no need to raise cash.

8. Continental's Announcement of Capacity Cuts

Last week, Continental described in detail its planned capacity reductions. Can we learn anything from their list as we look toward the detailed cut announcements to be unfurled by United, American, Delta, US Airways and others as we approach fall? Markets with leisure attributes that demonstrate little to no hope of being able to charge for the full cost of fuel, let alone all other expenses associated with carrying a passenger from A to B will either be eliminated or cut back significantly. Long-haul regional jet flying will be scrutinized, and reduced, as Continental cut a number of these city pairs. City pair routings of a highly seasonal nature might be totally eliminated during the shoulder season. And while much has been made of the shift to international flying, Continental certainly demonstrated that underperforming international markets will be cut as well. Finally, the elimination of service to certain cities that offer little hope of ever being profitable were dropped from their network map. Distinct patterns will develop as other carriers make their announcements.

9. The Mixed LCC Bag

Samer A Majali from Royal Jordanian was named the new Chairman of IATA. In an interview where he discussed issues confronting the global airline industry, he stated that fuel prices to hit budget airlines the hardest. In the US we have witnessed this very issue. We have seen ATA liquidate; Skybus liquidate; Frontier file for Chapter 11 reorganization and still searching for capital; and just recently Sprit announced that it will begin to cut capacity and headcount. This is not a very good time to be a "bottom fisher". AirTran and jetBlue have each sold aircraft and/or delivery positions to bolster liquidity. A question to ask: what will Southwest do when it has to run an airline instead of a trading desk? Will Southwest become the savior for big leisure-oriented markets like Las Vegas and Orlando and will these will be the markets that “fuel their growth”? Southwest is the one that scares me on the capacity discipline issue.

10. Those Frothy Commodity Markets

Today, the Air Transport Association called on Congress for U.S. curbs on oil speculators. I just get nervous when this industry calls on Congress for anything as it seems to be an invitation for layering on more favors that tend to make this industry even more inefficient than it is. But I do understand the need to investigate anything and everything that could help in the jet fuel area.

Finally and based on my previous post, the world’s best golfer was crowned yesterday. Only issue is - he had already been identified.