Archive Widget

Entries in National Mediation Board (18)

Monday
Sep052011

American: Limited Options, Pain Likely

Many readers have let me know that they are not as encouraged about the financial prospects of American Airlines with its massive aircraft order as I was in this piece. After all, the folks at AMR have problems beyond an ancient fleet, including an anemic revenue performance relative to the industry, high labor costs and all the other economic misery inflicted on many airlines in the past ten years.

I believe that AA’s aging fleet contributes some to the competitive disadvantage it suffers, and bright, shiny, fuel-efficient new planes will help impress customers and cut fuel and maintenance costs.  But what comes next?

Anxious analysts point to the fact that the price of oil impacts everyone, yet AA’s performance lags quarter after quarter. And there’s seemingly no significant movement yet in the airline’s labor negotiations, despite years at the bargaining table. With contract costs higher than anyone else in the industry, the company wants more productivity and smarter work rules in exchange for enhancements. All the while the unions have dug in either thinking or pretending that their righteous indignation will somehow turn the global economy and thus the industry around and recoup for labor all of losses in recent years.

American is one of the few carriers out there that didn’t turn to bankruptcy to shed some of these costs. In bankruptcy you cannot restructure the price of oil, but you can shed the leases of the least desirable aircraft, work with creditors to reduce debt and make changes to the labor agreements. But bankruptcy is probably not a realistic option now.

This is not 2002 with the shadow of 9/11 cast over the proceedings. This is not 2005 when the price of oil began its march upward and served as a catalyst for the bankruptcy filings of Northwest and Delta on the same day. 

No it is 2011, 10 years past the date that the country would like to forget.  Now, many airlines are flush with cash and don’t have the liquidity scares that were present when others filed. Many U.S. airlines are making money or at the very least are cash positive, despite jet fuel prices at the equivalent of a barrel of oil at $130. 

American, however, is on the wrong end of the industry today and some smart people question whether it will survive to see it’s much talked about long-term plans take wing.

So, let’s assume that Avondale Partners’ airline analyst Bob McAdoo was right in his May 16, 2011 analysis that American simply needs to shed capacity.  McAdoo cited US Airways as an example, where new management culled 20 percent of jet capacity.  But what he did not figure in is the likely relief American would need from its pilots union to make that kind of correction possible. More on that later.

American still relies on its regional partners to fly 37 and 44 seat jets because they are part of the pilot contract’s “scope” equation that determines the number of larger regional jets American can fly.  A 20 percent reduction in flying, much of it on long haul wide body routes flown by senior crews, would likely result in a furlough of up to another 1,500 pilots.  But American can’t do that either because of the same contract provisions that say American cannot drop below 7,200 pilots on the active roster.  And that doesn’t even take into consideration what the other union groups may have in their contracts that prevent the company from making the kind of changes that may be necessary to save the airline.

So what choice does American Airlines have?  Cutting that much capacity will be extremely painful for employees, and could put at least an additional 11,000 other American Airlines workers on the furlough list and in the unemployment line.  Cutting that much capacity would also redraw American’s network and route structure as we know it, giving its competitors greater strength in some cities and markets where American’s presence would dwindle or disappear.

McAdoo’s analysis calls for American to pull down certain Chicago to London flying; cut flights to Buenos Aires from multiple AA gateways; eliminate service to India;  reduce by half the flights from Chicago to China; and trim transcon service between JFK, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

McAdoo also challenges American’s “Cornerstone Strategy.”  In addition to flying a money-losing route between London Heathrow and Los Angeles, American is building its LAX presence using those inefficient, small regional jet aircraft. The same is true at Chicago and New York JFK.  In McAdoo’s view, Chicago is too dependent on connecting traffic at fares that are not compensatory.  Further he claims that in many instances, Chicago and Dallas/Ft Worth compete for many of same passengers connecting to points east and west and internationally and therefore are redundant service. 

Maybe it is time to de-emphasize LAX because the mix of traffic makes profitability difficult.  Maybe it is time to pull out of O’Hare because de-leveraging a hub is tricky particularly with an aggressive United hubbing in the same market.  Honestly, the only real big bang [removing fixed costs] American may have left is to massacre a hub like Chicago the way US Airways did to Pittsburgh and Delta did to Dallas/Ft. Worth.  The bigger the hub takedown, the bigger the fixed cost savings.

As for New York, American is now third in the market behind Continental at Newark and Delta at JFK and offers less connecting service than does Delta at JFK.  American’s relationship with jetBlue was supposed to address some of these competitive disadvantages but, as McAdoo points out, one can look a long time before finding many jetBlue to American connections in the various distribution systems. 

In the local New York market, AMR’s revenue per seat mile is underperforming when compared to peers at JFK and Newark.  Maybe it is time for American to pull out of JFK except for some select Trans-Atlantic flying, select transcon flying, and turn the rest of the region’s feed over the jetBlue.  But oneworld is depending on American to make New York the best market it can be for the alliance so this would be harder to do.  In fact with more 70-seat aircraft American could actually become more competitive there.  That would, again, depend on the pilot union’s willingness to do the right thing.

There is no doubt that a 20 percent cut in capacity would cause significant pain at American, even if it might be absolutely necessary to address the airline’s structural problems. But what if the cuts go even deeper?  What will be the impact on necessary American Eagle capacity that American has contracted for in the new Air Services Agreement?  If there is no Eagle feed, then there is no need for many mainline aircraft now dependent on the flow from points of all sizes behind and beyond the hub.  The virtuous circle spirals downward. 

At that point, American’s Cornerstone Strategy will be more about Dallas/Ft Worth, Miami and a little New York JFK and Los Angeles.  And the labor savings will come simply by cutting headcount.

To be clear, McAdoo says very clearly that labor costs are not the main driver of American’s weak results.  “Stopping the long haul bleeding has more direct leverage than trying to offset the losses by squeezing labor,” he said.  But in this scenario, labor is a large component of the fixed costs shed.

And on a strict profitability analysis, McAdoo may be right.  But contractual restrictions like pilot scope clauses – and American’s pilot scope clause is the most restrictive of network carriers – hamstring the company from making necessary tactical and strategic decisions. It is pretty clear that that American would not be flying as many mainline 136-seat aircraft today if it were able to utilize 70 seat aircraft like its competitors.  If that were the case, we may not be having this discussion.  And American Eagle would certainly not be flying 37 and 44 seat configurations in today’s fuel environment if not for the mainline pilot scope clause.

These small aircraft, “scope busters” to their critics, are used for many reasons and in this case they are used to average down the seat size of the regional fleet so that larger aircraft can be flown.  By the way, the competition flies 70-seat aircraft at will, primarily with the borders of the contiguous United States.  They can compete on frequency because they have right sized aircraft.  American does not.  Remember CALite?

Those who suggest that there is no labor problem at American should look no farther than the pilot agreement.  Among other common-sense adjustments, either American needs relief from that scope agreement in order that it can compete on equal footing with its domestic peers and provide the U.S. network feed to its oneworld partners that they demand, or the Allied Pilots Association needs to negotiate a regional-like contract for domestic flying as the A319s are delivered.  I wrote about these two options in March 2010 when I asked:  Mainline Pilot Scope: Will Regional Carriers Be Permitted to Fly 90+ Seat Aircraft?

It is unlikely that management at other airlines are going to make any deals that drive up their own labor costs only to have to go back and ask for relief later.

So there is not likely going to be the kind of labor cost convergence American hopes for in this round of negotiations; therefore, American may still have a labor cost disadvantage relative to the industry, particularly on productivity and benefits and scope.  This coupled with continuing economic challenges and pressure from investors and analysts will necessarily limit the extent to which American can sweeten its contract proposals to buy labor peace.  Purchasing labor peace only exacerbates the Ft. Worth carrier’s problems.

By all appearances, even the National Mediation Board recognizes that American does not have the money to satisfy the inflated demands of the unions that seem unwilling to discuss anything that smacks of a concession.

The upshot is that the unions at American may want to think hard about a draw-a-line-in-the-sand strategy that has done nothing but contribute to the airline’s under-performance. The contracts have to be part of an overall plan to get American out of the financial doldrums if the company is going to be able to execute the kind of financial and operational maneuvering that is absolutely necessary to win back the hearts and minds of the investment community – let alone customers and alliance partners.

A failure to make strategic, forward-looking agreements at the negotiations table now could have ramifications well beyond the individual contracts.  And there’s not a lot of time to waste in the process.  With limited options, the structural changes will prove painful.  

Saturday
Feb122011

Nature Abhors A Vacuum - Proving True At The Allied Pilots Association

Having been critical of some union leadership in the past, I now must acknowledge when some get it right.  And that someone is Captain David Bates, the president of the Allied Pilots Association at American Airlines.

I may not be doing Captain Bates any favors here. In the sometimes irrational world of union politics, leaders too often are applauded for destructive rather than constructive behavior, which is one reason labor relations are such a mess in the airline industry.  But here goes:

There have been few topics covered as extensively at www.swelblog.com as negotiations between American Airlines and its pilots represented by the APA.  My take is that for too long the APA’s behavior and actions were not becoming of a professional pilots union.  I wrote many times about Captain Lloyd Hill (Bate’s predecessor) and his term of empty promises:  All Eyes on Texas; Just Put It On Ice: American’s Ability to Pay ? APA’s Expectations; Maybe the Allied Pilots Association Is Really Onto Something; American Airlines and the Allied Pilots Association: A $3 Billion Question and AA’s Labor Negotiation Scenarios Get Even More Interesting to name a few.  His delusional approach to union leadership often landed Hill a starring role in the ongoing saga of Captain Lloyd and the Lost Planet Airmen.

My last post on the flight attendants union at American, A Flight Attendant Representation Inflection Point? received a lot of attention.  And it is most relevant to what transpired this week when Bates delivered his speech to the APA Board of Directors.  I have wondered many times how APA’s new leader would begin the process of ending the tough and reckless  leadership style of his predecessor and transition to a style he has shown to be tough yet pragmatic.  His words to his Board very clearly follow his actions in his first seven months in office.

As I’ve said before, there is a financial concept lost on union leaders today:  Net Present Value (NPV.)   It means simply that cash flows realized in the short term have more value to the firm (or individual) than cash flows generated years down the road. 

Bates recognizes this in his speech when he states early on: “We're now coming up on the five-year anniversary of when management opened up contract negotiations. Your National Officers know what the pilots want in this contract. We know that our earning power is diminishing each and every day.”  [the concept of NPV loud and clear].

The next five paragraphs of Bates’ speech speak plainly and loudly with a message that should be heeded by labor leaders throughout the industry.  And that is this:  The historic pattern of bargaining, in which a union gives in one round with full expectations that they’ll get it back plus more the next time, is history.  In the past, airline labor agreements addressed only the competitive realities confined within the 48 contiguous U.S. states to the extent they addressed competitive realities at all.  Today, union leaders need to accept that this is no longer the case. Airlines cannot cave to the urge to repeat the patterned sins of the past and give away pay without demanding changes necessary to compete with new and different competition.  At the same time management must listen carefully and think creatively about addressing labor’s concerns about jobs in a different but an increasingly global competitive industry.

Bates’ Five Paragraphs of Truth

I'm going to tell it straight. For the past several years, APA has played the blame game. We've blamed management, we've blamed the National Mediation Board and we've blamed the recession. We've portrayed ourselves as victims of an unfair world.

It's time we look in the mirror and get honest with ourselves. In APA's extensive contract proposal crafted several years ago, we opened on a large number of items in nearly every section of our contract. Instead of concentrating on the most immediate and important items, we created a wish list for a "dream contract," asking for dramatic increases throughout the contract. We loaded up the openers with "throwaways" and put hundreds of items on the table--of which approximately 320 still remain.

We told the whole world that we didn't know or care how much our demands cost. We said we didn't care what was going on with the economy or with the corporation's economics. We didn't consult with professional negotiators. We abandoned working within established industry protocols and severed ties with management.

These are some of the reasons the NMB and the United States government put APA in recess. The NMB told us to clean up our act. They told us that it does matter how much our "demands" cost, to quit bickering over internal governance and that we needed a leader who was empowered to make decisions. They were clear that APA's radical rhetoric had isolated us and that APA did not have many friends in Washington. They were concerned that the APA Negotiating Committee had no authority to bargain and that much of what they brought back was rejected. Lastly, when I was first elected APA President, the NMB was very direct in stating that there appeared to be no one in charge at the union. The NMB considered APA a basket case and no longer wished to waste resources. Fortunately for us, much of this has now been reversed.

Since our openers, we have refused to remove any items from the table and come off any of our more "interesting" demands. To do so--according to some--would be "negotiating against ourselves," or so the mantra goes. But what we've really done is to paint ourselves into a corner, thereby playing right into management's hands. We've given them the tools to slow negotiations down as much as they want. After five years, we still haven't had any serious negotiations on some of the most important items such as scope, pay, retro, stagnation and others. At the rate we are going, we could literally spend the next decade in negotiations.

Bates concludes, “It's time we get serious about clearing out the underbrush. Our pilots want an industry-leading contract now--not years from now.”

The full text of Captain Bates’ speech can be found on Terry Maxon’s Airline Biz Blog at the Dallas Morning News. 

The hard work of fixing labor relations and contracts in the airline industry must begin with clearing the underbrush  -- a  task that must be done before an efficient use of the National Mediation Board (NMB) can commence.  Using the services of the NMB to “work through” issues with the uniform section is grossly inefficient.  Nonetheless, that is how it seems many negotiating teams are using the Board. Reaching impasse on the uniform section [cynical emphasis added] does not constitute having reached the conditions for a release.

As the Dunlop II Commission recommended, both parties had best be working hard toward a resolution of the issues before a release is considered/granted.  Bates understands this clearly.

As I write this, I can hear the hue and cry from his union brethren that, with his speech, Bates is acting like a management lackey.  But that is simply naïve.  Negotiations require a back and forth on issues important to each party.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Changing course from the discredited reliance on “pattern bargaining” does not signal defeat.  It merely recognizes that the old way is not working toward reaching a agreement.

Every union has its minority factions that want to “burn the furniture” before they’re ready to sign a deal on the house.  That is a strategy that has proven in this round to not work.  Captain Bates is from a domicile at American, Miami, known to be a home to the union’s Taliban.  That faction will certainly scream.  But the professional airmen at American deserve better than the prior administration and maybe, just maybe, they will accomplish their ultimate goal of getting a leading contract.

This Wednesday, February 16 I will be speaking at the FAA Aviation Forecast Conference in remarks I’m calling: The US Airline Industry and Herbert Stein’s Law.  If you are not familiar with Herbert Stein’s Law, then give it a google.  More to come . . .

Tuesday
Nov022010

Swelblog: On Election Morn

This has been a busy month for the US airline industry with earnings and all.  As a result there has been lots of news and most of it good. Of course, two quarters do not make a trend -- something I'm frequently reminding people when I'm out on the road speaking on all things airline industry. 

So as we sit awaiting results on what promises to be a most interesting mid-term election, I want to look back on what has been a very political two years

First up: labor. Unions are all politics all of the time and that has played a big role in the airline industry since President Obama took office.  A cynic would say -- and I might agree -- that unions are simplistic organizations that too often focus on only on the next contract or the next election.  The result is too often a strategy in which they do everything they can to “choke the golden goose” for all of the pay and benefits possible at the time, which only puts their successors in the difficult position of presiding over concessions when the "gains" are no longer economically viable. There are some who say that this blog is too quick to bash unions.  But as I've said before, I'm equal opportunity in calling out bad behavior when I see it. And when it comes to airline labor leadership, I've seen a lot of it.

I've spent a lot of time challenging the leadership at the two largest pilot unions: Captain Lloyd Hill of the Allied Pilots Association and John Prater of the Air Line Pilots Association, both who ended their terms as president this year.  My fundamental criticism was each man’s decision to run on the opportunistic platform that all concessions would be returned and more.  Unrealistic.  Unfortunate.  Unfulfilled.

Lo and behold, the two important pilot unions have replaced “over promise and under deliver” with two new but seasoned presidents: Captain David Bates at the APA and Captain Lee Moak at ALPA.  [Moak has been the subject of much commentary on this blog and I encourage you to learn more about him].  I had the opportunity to spend time with both men last week at the Boyd Group International’s 15th Annual Aviation Forecast Summit in New Orleans.

I don’t want warm and fuzzy from union leaders and I don't expect it from management. What I want is a sense that each side understands and negotiates with a clear understanding of the economic environment in which the industry operates.  From both pilot leaders I am confident that principled negotiations and decisions will be the rule of the day.  From both pilot leaders I sense a potential to depart from gridlock and enter disciplined negotiations.  From management I want to see a renewed effort on communicating clearly the rigors of the business from a global perspective.  That would be true leadership.

Unions and management must break through the gridlock that leads to protracted contract talks and ultimately keeps money from pilots' pockets.  And both sides need to be honest with pilots about the extent to which the world has changed and the industry continues to change with it.  For example, today’s union negotiations should be less about who should fly 76-seat small jets and more about how to position an airline to challenge new and vigorous competition in Latin America, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific regions. For the mainline carriers, competition is now more about Dubai than Duluth, and more about Auckland than Austin.

It is fast becoming clear that flight attendant union leaders are also increasingly out of touch.  And no one is more out of touch than the President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants President Laura Glading. Glading, more than any union leader in the past or present, is too quick to threaten chaos and strikes without a clear understanding of the competitive realities that affect contract negotiations.

In her latest unconscionable act, Glading is calling on American Airlines flight attendants to write letters demanding a release to a "cooling off period" and possible strike from the National Mediation Board. Maybe Glading doesn't really understand the Board and its mission which, last I checked, is to try to prevent work actions that would threaten the nation's air transport system. Further, it would be unconscionable if the NMB were to cave into a letter writing campaign by a union that has done more to cause dissension in its ranks than promote the high level of customer service and professionalism the airline needs to compete. 

It has been interesting to watch the flight attendant negotiations at Continental and United. The Continental flight attendants actually voted down a tentative agreement that would have put money in their pockets immediately at a time the industry remains vulnerable economically. "Immediately" should have been an important factor considering that there will need be a representation election between the AFA-CWA and the IAM before any real negotiations can begin at the merged carrier.  My guess is that it could now take a couple of years before either the Continental or United flight attendants realize any economic gains over what they earn today.

As for negotiations with under-the-wing employees other than mechanics, the TWU negotiations at American provide a lens for one of the most difficult issues facing airlines: how to appropriately compensate ground workers.  In almost every case, this work could be outsourced for a fraction of the costs of keeping the work "in house" -- particularly when you consider the comparatively rich benefits package most airline employees receive. The baggage handlers are the most vulnerable yet the union group still holds out with demands for more. 

But if the unions may have a false sense of power because the worst-kept secret in the airline industry is the fact that baggage handlers have long ridden the coattails of the more skilled mechanic group, demanding wages that far exceed what these workers could command outside the airline industry. Said another way, because the skilled mechanic group has "carried" these less-skilled workers for so long, they have received less in negotiations over the years because the political structures of the TWU and the IAM includes baggage handlers in the same "class and craft" as a way to boost their ranks.

This week we will know the outcome of vote of the Delta and Northwest flight attendants, who are deciding whether to organize under the AFA-CWA banner (which would be a first for Delta flight attendants) or be a non-union group.  This election is the biggest yet under a new NMB rule that made the most significant change to the union election process under the Railway Labor Act in 75 years. That new rule likely will be the deciding factor in the outcome.  The change in the rule was all about politics, with a clear disregard for prior practice and arrogance in its refusal to address key subjects in the labor arena, including the ability of employees to decertify a union.

But that is reality in Washington today as it pertains to the airline industry.  We have had a number of issues become political in the name of consumer protection.  There are a number of matters being regulated or legislated in the name of safety.   A FAA Reauthorization bill cannot get passed because of all the non-FAA issues lawmakers stuck in the Senate and House versions as goodies for their own political constituencies.  But no matter the outcome of the national elections tomorrow, gridlock promises to rule the day in Washington for the next two years as well.

As British author Ernest Benn wrote:  “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”  That sums up how Washington deals with an industry that delivers value and jobs to the economy each and every day.

Tuesday
Jun292010

Buried Alive: Signed Tentative at American Declared Dead

As Gilda Radner on the old “Saturday Night Live” might say, “It’s always something.”

Less than a month ago, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) representing the Fleet Service Group at American Airlines (baggage handlers, freight service workers, aircraft fuelers/de-icers and aircraft cleaners) said it was “suspending” a tentative agreement (T/A)  reached with the company after more than two years of discussion.  Yesterday, after a meeting between American, TWU and the National Mediation Board (NMB), the union pronounced the agreement dead and asked the NMB to release the 11,000 workers in the group into a 30-day cooling off period.

But it’s been a twisting road to this point. When the TWU first announced the agreement, the union said it was strong armed into signing a T/A by NMB member Harry Hoglander.  In a May 28 press release, the TWU said:  “Although the committee cannot recommend the T/A, we believe the membership should have the final say. The decision to bring the T/A was made based on the NMB's premise that there would not be any other meetings scheduled until the end of year or possibly later.” 

The union then went on to say:  “The committee also took into serious consideration that the NMB would not look favorably upon the negotiating committee not allowing the membership to vote on the Company’s final offer.”

By June 3, 2010 the TWU bargaining team had decided to send the agreement to the membership with a “no” recommendation. President Jim Little then jumped in and said that the union would not send the agreement out for a vote without a recommendation to ratify the agreement.  At this point, the union “suspended” ratification of the agreement citing “unresolved Issues.”  

Yesterday the TWU used the same phrase, claiming that ”unresolved issues” with the agreement have created an “impasse” – a legal term under the Railway Labor Act to signal that the sides can’t reach agreement. The release quoted TWU International Administrative Vice President John Conley: “We are now at an impasse with AMR,” Conley said. “We no longer have a tentative agreement and no ballots will be presented to members for a ratification vote. We urge the NMB to promptly grant us release so that we can begin the self-help process.”

My Simple Question

So what exactly changed in the last month? By my read of it, nothing. It appears to me that the NMB won’t likely schedule any new mediated negotiations until 2011. 

But there is no evidence that the two sides are at an impasse.  Rather they are immersed in a political quagmire in which one side cannot convince its members that there must be some “give” in the agreement to make possible the “gets” the union wants in terms of wage increases and other contract enhancements. An impasse is declared only when the two sides cannot agree after exhausting the mediation process.

In this case the sides agreed to the economics – that was the basis of the tentative agreement that, if ratified by TWU members, would result in a new collective bargaining agreement.

A Conundrum in This Case

Let’s be clear: the company’s proposal would put more money in the pockets of fleet service workers. Now they will be forced to wait until negotiations are scheduled to reconvene yet again.  I do appreciate that there was a perception of layoffs associated with the agreement.  That is simply not the case – rather AA agreed that no TWU employee would be furloughed as a result of the company’s efforts to be more competitive, much the same guarantee AA has made in negotiations with other workgroups.

The conundrum is twofold.  First, the concessionary negotiations concluded during the restructuring round has resulted in a "mark to market" scenario that is no longer uniform among employee groups.  Remember that the bankrupt carriers took multiple "bites at the apple" by first reducing cash compensation; then achieving productivity gains that reduced headcount; and then reducing pension and health and welfare expenses.  American’s 2003 concessions were based mostly on that first bite, which means American’s labor costs remain higher than those airlines that restructured through bankruptcy - and it is different by work group.

Second, current negotiations are complicated by the increased use of outsourcing throughout the airline industry, which serves to fundamentally alter the comparisons of similar work from one airline to another.  This fact is most prevalent in “below the wing” work that most other airlines now outsource at significantly lower wages.

Today’s market for fleet service employees is not the fault of the Transport Workers Union per se.  But the union does have a responsibility to read the marketplace and negotiate an agreement that takes into account the economic realities out there. This is no impasse.  Rather it is a union’s misguided act in taking a live proposal that includes improved economics for its members and burying it alive.  Once again, the line workers see nothing in their pockets while the union lets a business agenda of maximizing headcount win the day. 

This is one tough round. 

Monday
May102010

The NMB Finally Issues Its Representation Rule: What’s Next For The US Airline Industry?

Today, the National Mediation Board issued a new rule governing union organizing that is probably the most controversial thing this government panel has ever done.

So, after sifting through 103 pages of legal citations falsely hoping that the rule as proposed in December would have been changed to address at least some of the opposition’s concerns, I now realize the truth: The NMB has become a political body.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a registered Democrat so this not a rant against all things Obama. But there are places politics shouldn’t figure so heavily and the NMB should be one of them.

The new representation rule comes as Delta and US Airways are suing the government over its proposed solution to the slot swap between the two carriers; and just a week or so since implementation of that visionary tarmac rule.  So yes, I am in a bit of a cynical if not downright snarky mood today.

In the final rule filed in the Federal Register, the National Mediation Board summarized:  “As part of its ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act, the National Mediation Board (NMB or Board) is amending its Railway Labor Act rules to provide that, in representation disputes, a majority of valid ballots cast will determine the craft or class representative. This change to its election procedures will provide a more reliable measure/indicator of employee sentiment in representation disputes and provide employees with clear choices in representation matters.”

In its proposed rule, the NMB is seeking to change the election process by which unions organize workers in the railway and airline industries. The new rule that will change 75 years of practice, would for the first time determine the outcome of union representation elections in the airline and railroad industries based on a majority of those who vote rather than current practice, where a majority of all eligible voters must support joining a union.

It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to read between the lines. The NMB is doing organized labor a big favor with this rule. So it is laughable to me that the Board describes the change as part of its “ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act.”  Funny, because the overarching statutory goal of the RLA is to minimize the disruption on interstate commerce stemming from labor-management disputes.  And this rule would likely do just the opposite, with unintended consequences, by increasing the likelihood of union activities that could yet be another destabilizing force in an industry that needs anything but -- a destabilizer that comes just as the industry tries to consolidate in order to stabilize.

The first 81 pages of the document were a little dry.  But starting on page 81 the dissenting opinion of NMB Chairman (and sole Republican member) Elizabeth Dougherty began: “I dissent from the rule published today for the following reasons: (1) the timing and process surrounding this rule change harm the agency and suggest the issue has been prejudged; (2) the Majority has not articulated a rational basis for its action; (3) the Majority’s failure to amend its decertification and run-off procedures in light of its voting rule change reveals a bias in favor of representation and is fundamentally unfair; and (4) the Majority’s inclusion of a write-in option on the yes/no ballot was not contemplated by the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and violates the notice-and-comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).”

Ouch.  But no matter. The Final Rule will become effective on June 10, 2010, unless opponents use the courts to stop it.

Let the Lawsuit Begin

The industry, speaking from the Air Transport Association platform said:  "It is quite clear to us that the NMB was determined to proceed despite the proposed rule's substantive and procedural flaws, leaving us no choice but to seek judicial review." 

The unions, of course, took a different tack. The AFA-CWA, a big winner here as it seeks for the third time to organize flight attendants at Delta, made clear where it stood on any legal challenge. "We applaud the NMB for taking this historic and courageous step to bring democracy to union elections. By allowing workers to have a voice in these elections, whether it be yes or no [author adds: or by write in], will only bring benefits to all parties. We look to airline management and their third party supporters to respect their employees' voices and the concept that guides our country every day, and not to bog down this significant achievement in legal appeals."

Having now devoted four blog postings to this subject, I may qualify as one of those third party supporters. Not because I’m carrying water for airline management, but because I think this rule stinks just like the tarmac rule and decision by this administration on the slot swap.  The only hope I have with this rule is that the incumbent unions start to be smarter in their negotiation strategies.

Included in a statement by AFA-CWA International President Patricia Friend’s statement lauding the cram down rule is her insistence that job security is a union function.  What is job security in today’s world?  Is it contract language?  Or is it a strong company?  When I think of pilot scope language that is designed and negotiated for the sole purpose of protecting jobs I see 14,000 mainline pilot jobs lost and nearly 800 narrowbody aircraft taken out of service because the economics (largely unproductive labor) could not translate into profitable flying.  But that unproductive labor paid union dues – for awhile.

I have a lot of union experience.  I worked as a local union president.  I have experience as an advisor to labor in distressed negotiations.  I serve in a union-appointed Board of Directors position at Hawaiian Airlines. While I know there is strong flight attendant union leadership at Hawaiian, the same cannot be said around the industry and I note in particular American and United and US Airways.

From what I can see, airline unions are all about yesterday.  Bankruptcy did not fix the labor problems at airlines or the ability of many airlines to manage their costs with still-bloated income statements.  But still the unions want to look back, back when labor costs were even higher and productivity was at an all-time low.  If productivity was given in the restructuring negotiations, union-represented employees would be earning more today.  But I digress.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that unions are all bad.  Good leadership on the union side and a willing management can make deals.  Look at the most unionized carrier in the US industry – Southwest – which thanks in part to a strong relationship with its unions has managed to pay well and do well in the marketplace by building a great corporate culture and making productivity and customer service a priority.

But unenlightened and parochial thinking pervades the leadership ranks of many other airline unions.  The industry will continue to face change and challenges. Unions that adapt and are able to let go of the past will flourish.  Unions that cannot adapt to the new direction of the global airline industry will struggle to deliver for their members. 

And Why Are We Changing This Rule?

It is pretty simple and transparent.  Neither the AFA-CWA nor the IAMAW believes that they have the votes necessary to win an election in their efforts to organize the combined work forces from the merger of Delta and Northwest.  So labor prompted a friendly administration to change the union representation process to help them pick up these coveted new members – particularly on the Delta side where the flight attendants and maintenance workers have never been union.  Imagine how happy those former Delta employees must/will be?

Or, as the union leaders have clearly calculated, if you fail to win hearts and minds at the ballot box (as they have not once but twice) then change the rules. And despite an outcry and outpouring from the industry about the rule as first proposed by the NMB, the Board made no changes to address the concerns expressed by opponents. Instead the rules were relaxed even more to the advantage of unionization. Decrease the barriers to entry (union representation) and leave the barriers to exit high (no direct union decertification procedure).  So off we go to court.

As I have written before, it is not so much the rule change as the way the "politically neutral" NMB went about it.  With the tarmac rule it is the arbitrary nature of the three hours.  With the slot swap deal it is denying the incumbent carriers the right to sell what they invested in over the years and determine an adequate return on that asset.

I understand that most things governmental are heavily political.  But politics have had too much influence over this industry, and not for the benefit of the airlines or the hundreds of thousands of workers they employ.

More to come.

Monday
Apr192010

What Would Yoda Say to the APFA?

Where I would typically use this space to talk about the fact that the rumor mill has United and Continental in serious merger talks, I am not going there.  My feelings on a US Airways – United hookup are well documented in a number of posts.  I will be most pleased if United and Continental are indeed in talks.  Each carrier has aggressively pursued a path to the least exposure to the US domestic market, and that is a path resisted by US Airways.

I respect many people at US Airways, particularly those managerial types who have done yeoman’s work with a network that, in my opinion, holds little promise long-term. It is, as I say, presence everywhere and a dominant piece of meaningful real estate nowhere.

To me the biggest piece of news this past week was the fact that the National Mediation Board (NMB) did not release either the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) or the Transport Workers Union (TWU) into a 30-day cooling off period that each union sought in their negotiations with American Airlines.

At least until we see the rule drafted by the NMB on representation elections, all seems right at the Board.  They did not release a case that is nowhere near exhausting the mediation process, even though I had feared that they might given the political winds in Washington.

So, the APFA is, for the time being, reduced to trying to convince the world of the numerous grievances its members carry. The union’s You Tube videos claim that AA flight attendants are oppressed.  They talk of the past like somehow it will reappear,  even when reality knows it is but a faint memory.  And through it all, APFA’s reckless talk of a strike continues – reckless because the circumstances don’t justify the action as I have written before, most recently in Self-Help or Self Sacrifice or Self Fulfilling Prophecy? What Will This Accomplish?

I am reminded of a quote by Yoda in Star Wars: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering."

American’s Conundrum

Few people, if any, have been as critical of American’s union leaders as I have.  The one union that has been left unscathed by swelblog has been the TWU because, as a leader, John Conley is typically careful in misusing power and rhetoric.  But in this case even Conley has come close to the line.

Is the fear that a union working to address American’s productivity deficiencies in return for improved wages somehow collaborating with the “dark side”?  I think it is.  The fear of reprisals from a vocal minority of members toward a union’s leadership has led to a campaign based on anger toward the employer.  The anger has become hate as unions try to tie everything wrong in the industry to executive compensation, particularly that part of their pay in at-risk company securities.

But without executive pay, what are the unions really protesting? Change? We’ve got plenty of that in the airline industry, which is all the more reason cooler heads should prevail in approaching negotiations in a way that promises the best long-term pay and job security for airline employees.

But that’s not how the flight attendants union is approaching it. The APFA is trying to stir up a lot of anger and hate with a strike vote that, if it eventually led to a strike, runs the risk of doing serious harm to wages and working conditions for their members.

The APFA has been speaking out of both sides its mouth in urging members to support a strike a vote. On one side it encourages flight attendants to send a message to management and channel their anger by threatening a work stoppage that would bring the carrier to its knees. On other other it tries to calm flight attendants with reassurances that they themselves would not be hurt by going out on strike.

And that’s just wrong. APFA President Laura Glading should be careful what she asks for.

What good did the strike do the BA flight attendants and their union Unite?  Zero. Nothing.  Nada.  It did entice a management to put into place a plan to fly through the “three strikes.”  Three strikes and you are out right?  Glading’s plea to her members is pathetic.  All the while she reminisces about 1993 and 2001, she mentions that a “yes vote” does not mean that they will strike.  She talks about the power of yes.  But she does not once mention the potential risks of a strike to her members.

Glading also does not mention that her flight attendants are the highest paid among her network peers according to MIT’s Airline Data Project; the least productive in terms of hours flow per month; generally lagging in terms of in terms of passengers served per flight attendant equivalent; and the beneficiary of a relatively costly benefit package.  It makes the negotiations between American and its flight attendants very complex and difficult to conclude - even for the most skilled negotiator and/or mediator.  American is asking for increased productivity for one simple reason:  whereas American’s salary per flight attendant is comparable to that received by flight attendants at Continental, if American achieved the same flight attendant productivity as Continental the carrier would require 1,254 fewer flight attendants.  And the carrier has offered to grow into the productivity over time rather than lay off even more flight attendants.

If I am an American flight attendant, I would carefully consider these facts.  Negotiations are now data driven – just like a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) would be.  APFA likes to talk to the world about labor cost per available seat mile (CASM).  But that metric is fraught with potential error as the calculation is influenced by a wide number of items which are not in the control or purview of the flight attendant collective bargaining agreement.

In fact, as CASM is influenced by factors as varied as seat configurations, stage length, aircraft utilization and network design to name a few, even analysts and economists would be hard pressed to make the kind of bold analytical statements and sweeping conclusions that the APFA is making.  Pay and productivity are expressed in hourly rates and hours worked and that is why the MIT Airline Data Project examines pay and productivity against an hourly foundation.  The APFA refers to staffing as the culprit in American’s  high flight attendant unit cost.  The problem is that the 3-class fleet is a very small portion of the fleet.  Can 3-classes really be responsible for the highest flight attendant costs in the industry among the legacy carriers?  Warning to United:  the same argument is coming your way.

American does have a conundrum in that it is the first major case in front of the NMB and it has the highest costs among its peer group, particularly with its flight attendants who, as a group, are highly paid relative to their low productivity.  In a recent Dallas Morning News, I was quoted by author Terry Maxon suggesting that there will be an airline strike.  Inside of my comment was a challenge to management:  Is the airline ready to take a strike?  If American caves in its position, the industry suffers.   The American Airlines flight attendants suffer because American will have agreed to pay more than it can afford.  Even the best heeled US airline cannot afford what American’s employees are asking from their management. 

American’s unions constantly point to management compensation as unfair but, as is typical, they use only the parts that serve their purpose.  Conveniently, forgotten is the fact that there have been years in which management got well below their target pay (and well below their industry peers) because the system of pay linked to performance actually works.  Yes, management pay is higher than pay on the front lines.

That’s pretty much the way it works in every industry. That’s because the market for management labor is different than the market for flight attendant labor.  That’s a reality.  And in a market-based economy, no one is entitled to more for their labor than what the market will pay. The NMB got it right at this point.  Exposing the company to the destructive threat of a strike doesn’t serve anyone’s interest.

Yoda was right to focus on fear as a path to the dark side.   In this case, the dark side is not so much a strike but, rather, the fear, anger and hate churned up by union leaders that could lead to a disastrous outcome for the members they represent  

Wednesday
Mar172010

Continental Makes a Most Interesting Proposal to Its Pilots: Delta plus $1

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all.  The pattern on this holiday is all things green.  And maybe the luck of the Irish will make this St. Patrick’s Day a lucky one for Continental pilots as the company presented the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) with a new contract proposal. The pattern for collective bargaining in the airline industry is to secure all things deemed as best in class.  As I see it, Continental made an offer to its pilots that actually addresses pattern bargaining.  Not quite sure if I love it, but it is interesting.  Most interesting.  

The two sides have been in discussions for more than two and one-half years.  The amendable date has come and gone, yet the parties have not filed for mediation.  There’s been some movement on the non-economic issues, but little progress has been made on the economic ones. 

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  This week, that’s what much of the talk from American Airlines’ flight attendants centered on as they asked for release from the National Mediation Board.  Several unions at American and United increasingly point to the long periods of time it is taking to reach an agreement. 

In its letter to Capt. Jay Pierce, President of the Continental ALPA Master Executive Council, Continental Airlines addresses how long it might take to negotiate an agreement:  “We have weighed the fact that it has taken ALPA two and a half years to compile and propose an exceptionally complex and comprehensive opening economic proposal that nonetheless still has a number of substantive items open. Despite its complexity, that proposal remains only conceptual, lacking specific contractual language. We have also considered the considerable period of time it would take to negotiate and craft specific contractual language that is fair to the pilots and fair to the Company. Even if we had no significant disagreements over terms of that opening proposal (a highly unlikely circumstance given the excessive increase in costs it contains), negotiating and refining ALPA's current proposal into to a final executable agreement is a task that would clearly take a very long time.”

Given that the Delta pilot agreement had become a template for the Continental pilots in their negotiation of a new agreement, Continental simply said that they would offer their pilots the Delta pilot contract except for a seat on the Board of Directors and by adding $1 to the pay rates included in the Delta Pilot Working Agreement (PWA).  The offering includes the Delta pension and benefits section as well.  This is important – very important – because benefit costs go into the calculation of the cost of an agreement.  We are finally at the point where we talk about the all-in cost – not just hourly rates of pay.

Capt. Pierce responded:  “the proposal is no surprise and much of the bargaining agenda that we have already presented is based on the Delta PWA. Hence, our Negotiating Committee is very familiar with that agreement and has referred to it often. Notwithstanding this fact, any such transition would be a very complex matter and there is much to consider before we commit ourselves to such a process. We will be carefully reviewing the ramifications of this proposal with respect to our bargaining objectives over the coming days. However, while we must proceed with caution and based on a complete understanding of the Delta contract, we are obviously interested in any process by which we can legitimately avoid extended negotiations during which a concession agreement will remain in place.”

Pattern Bargaining

This is the second time this week where I’ve see pattern bargaining embraced by management. First, it was American and how it structured pay increases for flight attendants in the last offer.  Now it is Continental adding $1 to the pay rates included in the Delta pilot agreement.  I hate pattern bargaining.  I think it is counter-productive as no one airline is the same.  Just because Delta negotiates an agreement with rates and working conditions it believes it can afford, that does not mean Continental’s network can afford the same. But this pattern is a little different than pattern bargaining of the past – and deserves a closer look.

Pattern bargaining typically resulted in best-in-class provisions being included in the union’s opening proposal.  It was/is a cherry picking exercise. Whether the unions want to believe it or not, the cherry-picking of agreements also contributes to negotiations taking longer than a party might wish.  Why?  Because each and every collective bargaining agreement has sections that work in tandem with another section.  As one section was made more complex, other sections of the agreement were impacted.  Simply, the interdependencies within a collective bargaining agreement must be analyzed, understanding a change in Section 7 affects Sections 11 and 14 and so on.  It’s a process that has become increasingly complex over the years.  Circular logic can be hard to avoid for you excel users.

What is interesting about Continental’s offer is the idea of a single collective bargaining agreement – one where the interdependencies are understood and identified – avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional pattern bargaining.  What the company points out in its submission letter is the Delta PWA “is a post-merger, post-concessionary pilot agreement at a legacy carrier that is also the world's largest airline, it will likely set the pilot contract standard for years to come.”   

For me, what the company seems to be saying, is if we are going to engage in pattern bargaining, then no more picking what you want from that agreement and from this agreement.  The same agreement produces no need to distinguish between pilot rates of pay; rules governing work; and benefits (to be determined).  Presumably, the work rules when applied across a respective network would yield the same hours of productivity except for structural seniority differences.  Differences in pension plans and retiree health insurance are company specific and therefore may be or may not addressed by this type of a proposal exchange.  Talk about a way to speed the process.

The Delta Nuance

The Delta PWA was negotiated under the watchful eye and focused leadership of Captain Lee Moak.  I have written about Capt. Moak many times. What seems to set Moak apart is an understanding the industry has undergone significant structural change and the Delta agreement needs to embrace that change.  For example, because Delta serves many small and medium-sized markets in the U.S., there are few limits on the use of regional jets 76 seats and smaller.  Continental is the only legacy carrier that does not permit use of regional jets with more than 50 seats.  This line in the sand keeps Continental at a domestic competitive disadvantage relative to the industry.      

Mainline pilot scope has been quite the topic here at www.swelblog.com over the past week.  Some have suggested I drew the line – or heard what they wanted to hear - at 50 seats.  I did not.  To me the line begins with the next generation of small jets that are bigger than the current aircraft platforms doing 76 seat-and-less flying within networks.  The domestic scope issue is but one scope concern at Continental.  The real issue of significance is that Continental cannot implement the joint venture with United, Air Canada and Lufthansa without the relaxation of language contained in the existing Continental pilot agreement.  There is a regulatory deadline to complete aspects of the joint venture and anti-trust immunity agreements.  Scope is not just domestic.

This is where the Continental situation gets a little murky.  Moak understands that the globalization of the airline industry will drive his carrier’s success.  Further, he demonstrated his understanding of such when he negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement for the merged Delta and Northwest pilots.  Moak accomplished something extraordinary in the history of merger negotiations in the U.S. airline industry. 

Ted Reed of TheStreet.com wrote about the Continental situation last month.  Reed wrote and quoted Continental’s pilot leader Jay Pierce, “Among the network carriers, two models exist for pilot relations. Pilots at Continental and Delta have generally enjoyed positive relationships with the carriers. Pierce said he is an admirer of Lee Moak, chairman of the Delta ALPA chapter; the two talk frequently. "We both recognize that our airlines need to be profitable," he said.”

Depending on how you look at it, the Continental pilots are searching for leverage and public pronouncements seem to suggest they have found the leverage in their scope section.  Now the company counters by offering pilots the agreement they have held out as "industry leading".  The difference being the Delta contract negotiated by Moak allows 76 seat-and-less flying and embraces the direction of international joint ventures.  [All sections of an agreement have interdependencies with other parts of the agreement]

In his interview with Ted Reed, Pierce says he recognizes the need for his company to be profitable.  The pilots also say their current proposal would only cost the company $500 million. [Note:  the $500 million is an ALPA cost estimate, and not a company estimate.] When was the last time Continental reported net income in a year of more than $500 million?  But the ask is not just $500 million.  The $500 million would compound in perpetuity.  And that is before contractual improvements are offered to other Continental employees.

Why I Like the Continental Approach 

  • What I like about this offer from Continental is it does some tearing down of the cancerous practice in the airline industry of pattern bargaining. 
  • It challenges both sides to come to terms in a more expedient manner than the current construct produces. 
  • It embraces Delta’s long-time approach to pay commensurately well in return for operational flexibility and productivity. 
  • Most of why I like the approach is that it is different.  As I say too much for some on this blog, the old way just does not work. 

As I wrote in the last piece on pilot scope, my real fear is for management to again overpay for scope.  That makes me nervous this time.

The more I think about it though, I am starting to like it because it addresses the real issue of how long it takes to get a deal done under the Railway Labor Act.  Whereas I have defended the RLA in the past, maybe the time issue does need to be discussed.  But to do that, we would have to limit the number of issues that require mediator expertise?

And another reason I like it -- maybe this will build the stage where the legacy carriers can compete on service and price and not on a labor cost differential?

Friday
Jan222010

Pondering Washington Politics and Dilemmas over Airline Strikes

Things just happen when things move too far too fast.

Wow.  All I could say after Tuesday night’s victory for Scott Brown in Massachusetts was wow.  I am still in a head shaking wow mode as is much of the country.  Then again, this has been one amazing 40 days for the country when it comes to politics.  Much of the political power grabs have been occurring within the health care reform debate arena where the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the unions wringing a “Cadillac Plan” tax exemption out of the White House emerged.   

During these amazing 40 days, the airline industry was not immune from political meddling and arrogance that somehow manage to turn politicians into CEOs and airline route planners either.  Nevada Senator Harry Reid went so far as to write a letter to US Airways CEO Doug Parker expressing concerns about the airline’s decision to significantly downsize operations at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.   Reid’s letter provides a lot of fodder for comment, but there are a few I want to highlight.

Reid writes, “As I am sure you are aware, Nevada has been particularly hard hit by the recession affecting our nation.”  Hey Harry, have you noticed the U.S. airline industry lost nearly $60 billion during the 2K decade.  Or that airlines shed 150,000 jobs because of economic conditions that plague the country and, thus, this industry which is inextricably tied to the health of the economy?  Or that taxes and fees on airlines increased while the revenue environment deteriorated?  Or that you chose to pursue, and fund, a railroad serving a few rather than funding an air traffic control system and equipping an industry now serving the masses?  I suppose not.

Then Reid has the audacity to write, “Because of the commitment you have shown to Nevada, I have been a longtime supporter of your airline.  From the merger with USAir to accessing additional slots on the East Coast, we have worked together to build the airline into one of the premier national carriers.”  Wow, how arrogant is that?  Does that mean if US Airways pulls down Las Vegas, Reid will stand in the way of a commercial arrangement that would make US Airways stronger?  Then again, that line of thinking is more typical than atypical of this Congress and its view of an industry that facilitates commerce.

Politics are the rule of the day even with quasi-government agencies charged with minimizing instability within those very industries. The way the National Mediation Board is going about changing a 75-year rule that worked until organizing possibilities presented themselves at Delta Air Lines is another example of politics run amuck.

Speaking of the National Mediation Board

There is a lot of talk in the mainstream and industry press about airline strikes.  The process by which airline and railroad unions can strike is quite different than other industries – and it all runs through the National Mediation Board.  It is explained better by some reporters than others. 

This round of negotiations is the first since the restructuring negotiations of 2002 that resulted in significant salary and work rule provisions being stripped from many collective bargaining agreements.  Some of those negotiations were done under Sections 1113 and 1114 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and others were not.  The current round of talks will involve the National Mediation Board in many, if not most, instances.  Complicating matters is the sheer number of cases already being negotiated under the auspice of the NMB.   And there are more cases on the way. 

As I write, all organized groups at both American and United Airlines (per a reader: except the IBT, PAFCA and IFPTE) are in mediation.  At some point, certain of those negotiations will have gone as far as they can before the NMB determines the two sides are at an "impasse".  Once an impasse is declared, then the parties are put into what is known as a “30 day cooling off period.”  If no agreement is reached inside that 30 day period, then either side is free to engage in “self help.”  Self help permits management to either “lock out” employees or to "impose its last offer" on the work force. The union can choose to withdraw its services – otherwise known as a strike - - or utilize other “work actions.”   The parties can mutually agree to continue talks until such point that further discussions are deemed fruitless by either side.

Dilemmas for Obama As He Considers a Request from Airline Workers to Strike

Going into this negotiating period and suspecting difficult, if not impossible, negotiations, I wondered aloud about how decisions would be made to release parties into a cooling off period.  I wondered aloud if strikes would be more prevalent than they have been in the past.  I have wondered aloud about who might be this decade’s Eastern Air Lines.  I have wondered just how the NMB is possibly going to manage this work load all the while promising a more speedy negotiating process as part of its new charge.  And recently I have been wondering how politics might affect NMB thinking when it comes to releasing parties from mediation. 

In my prior thinking I believed that this round would result in more Presidential Emergency Board proceedings to ultimately decide the terms of a contract.  A Presidential Emergency Board?  Yes, as the 30 day cooling off period expires and, more often than not, the union decides to engage in self help, there is a parallel decision that must be reached by the White House. 

The White House must determine how commerce might be disrupted if a certain airline were to go on strike.  That calculus involves, at a minimum, the level of unaccomodated demand in certain markets if one carrier were to strike.  Or said another way, can the remaining service in the market accommodate the passengers that cannot travel on the carrier they booked on due to the strike? 

In the era where 80+ percent load factors are the norm, the case for suggesting that demand can be accommodated by the remaining service is increasingly difficult.  It was already starting to get difficult when the Northwest pilots decided to strike in August of 1998.

So if Obama, in this case, determines that a strike would provide too much harm to certain air travel markets, he could stop the strike and order a Presidential Emergency Board to be convened… just like President Clinton did in 1997 when the American pilots chose to strike.  In the case of a PEB, a panel of neutrals, usually arbitrators, is formed to hear the economic case presented by each side.  If the parties cannot agree, then the panel will suggest a "non-binding" settlement.  There is still the possibility of a strike and also the possibility that Congress could legislate a settlement to avert such strike – more than likely the settlement offered by the PEB.

But that is a long way down the road.  I only raise the issues in this piece because politics prior to Massachusetts at least would seem to be nothing more than promises made to special interests (unions) in a dark room in order to garner their support for Obama.  And it worked and has worked.  But might things change?

Compunding the complexity of White House decisions in this round is the possibility of interstate commerce disruption when government stimulus money is in play.

Dilemmas for Airline Labor As They Decide to Strike

About the only thing that you can predict is that a strike at a major, legacy airline will more than likely result in yet another tombstone in the airline graveyard.  Said another way, if a union wants to strike one of today’s legacy carriers, I can see a lock out, use of replacement workers or the sale of assets to another airline that does not include employees.  Ultimately, the majority of the flying done by the striking airline will be replaced. Should a strike result in the liquidation of an airline, the flying will be done by companies that can do it more efficiently – which means fewer jobs.  And that cuts against this administration’s agenda too – doesn’t it?

As hard as it might be for unions to understand, not enough was done on the productivity side of the equation during the restructuring negotiations.  Yes, a judge presided over most of the restructuring negotiations.  But the unions were largely permitted to “pick their poison” when it came to making contractual changes with pensions being the exception.  The poison chosen was to reduce pay more than it needed to be reduced in order to preserve work rules. The tenet that rules the day in any union caucus room is that you can never get work rules back.

In order to get more money in the pockets of workers, more efficiencies need to be found in this industry.  For unions, that will mean fewer dues paying members.  But, this smaller work force would be earning more cash compensation.

One can only hope that a Presidential Emergency Board fully understands the tradeoff between pay, benefits and productivity.

Wednesday
Dec232009

Swelblog’s 12 Airline Industry News Items of 2009

It is that time of the year again when it is time to put the packages under the tree. The packages represent my 12 days of Christmas, or the 12 airline industry issues that took place in 2009 that I find important. I have placed my packages under the tree in descending order of importance.

... read more

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Nov172009

Self-Help or Self Sacrifice or Self Fulfilling Prophecy? What Will This Accomplish?

This week, Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News  wrote about the “surprised” reaction at American Airlines when a correspondent on NBC’s Today Show reported a “potential strike” at the airline following the holidays.

The show was a bit vague on its sources, but my best is that Laura Glading, President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, is working her media list to drum up a little coverage for the union’s latest negotiations gambit.

I consider myself a pretty good historian on most things airlines over the past 30 years.  And I remember the APFA’s divisive and destructive Thanksgiving strike in 1993 that attempted to bring the airline to its knees over the critical holiday travel period.  Last year, the union “celebrated” the 15th anniversary of the strike with a campaign they called “Remember November.”

For this year’s anniversary, the union is doing its best to remind the company of the pain it could again impose in a campaign that all but threatens another strike . . . this one called “Got Guts?” 

To be fair, the APFA has made clear that they do not plan to disrupt American’s operations over the holidays.  However, the union did say it was prepared to strike next year if no contract agreement is reached by January, with Glading saying she will consider asking the National Mediation Board for a “release” from negotiations – the first step toward seeking the right to “self help” under the Railway Labor Act.

First, let’s review the rules.  The NMB will grant a release only if it believes negotiations are at an impasse, and the bar for that is set pretty high.   A release would then open a 30-day “cooling off” period.  Only after that point and if the parties fail to reach agreement can either side engage in self help --  which for a union means work stoppages or strikes and for management allows a company to impose its “last offer” at the table or lock out striking workers.

So let’s be perfectly clear.  The union can’t strike now, no matter what the alarmists may say on Today. There is no guarantee that the NMB would grant a release. And even then, the RLA has several protections built in – the cooling off period and the prospect of a Presidential Emergency Board – to prevent the kind of work stoppages that could ground an airline and impact interstate commerce.

So why is the flight attendant union playing it out this way? Why on one hand are they talking strikes (which in some cases proves reason enough for passengers to “book away” from a particular airline) and on the other hand trying to reassure passengers that their holiday travel plans are safe?

Because that’s what unions in the industry too often have done. . . talk out of both sides of their mouth – paying lip service to their commitment to passengers while at the same time making demands and engaging in work actions that threaten the airlines’ ability to do business.

The Boeing Lesson

Let’s consider the real impact of strikes.

Last September I wrote here:  “In what is starting to be a rather ho-hum event in the aerospace/defense world, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) have decided to strike the Boeing Company for the second time in three years. Is this a “yawn moment” or a precursor of things to come as the airline industry begins in earnest the renegotiation of concessionary contracts?”  

In its negotiations, Boeing was looking to balance its economic offer to the union with added flexibility in its contracts the company needed to address the ups and downs in the business cycle.   The IAMAW was not willing to comply. So Boeing ultimately settled with the union, but not before further damage was done to an already fragile relationship. 

The real story, however, played out a few months later, when Boeing announced its decision to build a second production line to build the 787– not in Washington, its corporate home for decades, but in the right-to-work state of South Carolina.

Washington State officials reportedly worked hard to try to convince Boeing to stay, but at the end the state’s governor said the company’s decision to build the line in South Carolina came down to one thing: its difficult relationship with the Machinists union and a failure to reach a no-strike deal. 

And the pain may not be over for Washington’s IAMAW workers. At some point Boeing will need to begin manufacturing replacements for today’s 737 and 777 lines.  Where will those planes be built? 

What is particularly telling in this case is that the IAMAW was publicly dismissive of the fact that the union’s actions had anything to do with the company’s decision to add capacity in South Carolina. 

This is typical of labor of late.  But at some point unions in this space – whether airline or aerospace -- need to recognize the fundamental flaw in their collective bargaining agreements that too often work to choke productivity rather than promote it.

Looking ahead, I believe that the current round of airline negotiations must continue the transition/transformation underway in the US airline industry and address the sticking points in its contractual relationships with its labor force.  These include pay (which is unlikely to return to 2001 levels)  and productivity (which unions resist for fear of losing dues-paying union jobs).

The crux of the problem for labor as I see it is a failure to appreciate the delicate balance between pay and productivity. Without recognition that balancing the formula is critical, the industry, and individual carriers, will continue to find a more efficient means of doing the work.

Sadly, productivity is driven at its core by seniority and all the protections I’ve discussed in the past that unions provide so that long term members feast while newer members are left to feed on the scraps. 

Despite many of the gut-wrenching changes and cost cuts during the last negotiations cycle, the industry did nothing to restructure seniority – the “third rail” on union politics.  In my view, organized labor’s blind commitment to preserving seniority lies at the heart of a race to the bottom.  Yes, the revenue environment contributes more than its fair share to airline’s financial woes, but at some point labor has to accept responsibility for the role of these Depression-era ideologies.  The reality is that, last time around, airline wages were cut more than necessary because of union insistence on preserving seniority and limiting productivity.

Back to the Cabin

So it is in this environment that the APFA waves its strike threat like a red flag in the bullring.  The APFA website even features a report the union commissioned highlighting the failures of airline deregulation and the economic pressures on the industry. On a recent trip to Washington, Glading joined AFA-CWA President Pat Friend in urging the Obama Administration to “stabilize an industry that's not working” and reverse the “damage done” to the traveling public.

Call me nuts, but I’m guessing that Glading’s talk of a strike runs counter to her desire to “stabilize” the industry.  Perhaps other carriers would benefit from the union’s effort to ground the country’s second largest carrier in terms of revenue. But American – and all of its employees – wouldn’t see many benefits.

Or am I to believe that glorifying 1993 and rallying her members to strike in one of the most difficult times in airline history would alleviate the “damage done” to travelers?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the U.S. industry needs to do a better job of managing labor costs in boom and bust cycles in which fat contracts are approved in boom years only to require painful and at times draconian cuts when the cycle turns down.

Tellingly, and perhaps predictably, the unions are hoping a labor-friendly administration in Washington will help them gain new power in the industry – evidenced also by their efforts to change election rules at the NMB to make it easier to organize workers (even if the AFA-CWA, which is trying to organize at Delta, is hiding behind the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department to do it.)

What’s happened in Detroit over the last year is a pretty good indicator of what happens when an industry fails to get its costs in line with the market.  A smaller airline industry can’t absorb the same costs – including labor costs – that it did ten years ago.  Already we’ve been at this restructuring thing for more than five years and it’s pretty clear that the market has spoken.

So I’m really confused by what the APFA thinks it will get in return for a strategy that will only hurt the company that employs its members.

I don’t know what a strike buys anyone in this fragile business environment except, perhaps, an unpleasant ending.  Where I do agree with Ms. Glading is the importance of recognizing history.  I, for one, remember Pan Am, Eastern and TWA.  At the time, most believed those proud companies could weather any storm.  And I’d guess there may be another airline on that list before this cycle is complete.

If the past eight years have been rough and tumble, imagine what the next few years could be like as airlines reach pressure points in contract negotiations.   In that case, I can only imagine what would be left to celebrate on the 20th anniversary of APFA’s Thanksgiving Strike. 

Tuesday
Nov102009

Is the Proposed NMB Rule Change Wright or Wrong?

I had made up my mind that I was not going to write anything more on National Mediation Board activities, at least until after the scheduled public hearing on December 7 in Washington. Isn’t it interesting that the date for the hearing is synonymous with Pearl Harbor Day?  I digress.

I have heard from many people regarding the two recent NMB pieces I posted on this blog.  Most of the comments have been private and along the lines of:  “How can you oppose something so fundamentally akin to our democracy? “And “How can you possibly be against anything that is so aligned with the Constitution of the United States? “

Negotiation and Compromise Were Wright

As I think about my feelings, I reflect back on the reasons I helped American Airlines a few years back in its campaign against Southwest’s push to repeal the “Wright Amendment.”  After all, Southwest’s CEO Herb Kelleher had made a deal in 1979 (or maybe 1978, or maybe 1977, or maybe earlier)when he agreed to the Wright Amendment’s limitations on Southwest’s flying from Dallas Love Field.  Then, in 2004, for reasons unstated but not hard to figure out, Kelleher wanted to undo that deal and expand his airline’s ability to fly nonstop on new routes from Love to points beyond the eight state limit that had been legislatively imposed. 

The Wright Amendment was negotiated with a purpose and a commercial issue at its core.  The law was largely designed to promote stability in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airline market as a then-fledgling DFW Airport came online.  In my work on the campaign, I was often asked how I could oppose unfettered competition in the Dallas marketplace. My reasoning was simple: I believed repeal would lead to dangerous instability in the airline marketplace, particularly for American at a time when all legacy carriers were on life support.  Southwest's motives were largely intended to take advantage of commercial weakness.   

When I assessed the Dallas market and the potential impact on American if the Wright Amendment was immediately repealed, the tenets of a compromise played themselves out in the analytics. That analysis supported a phased-in repeal that immediately allowed through ticketing for Southwest at Love Field.  It certainly was not my place to suggest that compromise.  That compromise came only after a lot of hand wringing among politicians and senior airline executives alike.  But it assured more stability in the market and will ultimately lead to what Southwest sought:  Come 2014, it will be "free" to fly to any and all domestic points from its home base in Dallas.

A Cram-Down Would be Wrong

Based on what we know today, the National Mediation Board through its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) seems to leave very little room for negotiation or even compromise as to how representation elections should take place.  This, despite concerns raised from not only management interests but from other unions with interests as well.  Interesting, and disturbing, behavior for a quasi-government agency with the mandate to reach agreements with parties rather than provoke, and perpetuate, actions that lead to disruption and delay, don’t you think?  

As I wrote in my last blog, as drafted the NPRM smacks of politics, disregard for prior practice and arrogance in its refusal to address key subjects in the labor arena, including the ability of employees to decertify a union and a union’s right to demand the personal contact information of employees they hope to organize known as an Excelsior list.

Let me be clear here:  I have no issue with the rule change per se.   But I have major problems with how it is being done.  In a real world application of NMB mediation cases, doesn’t the Board provide one or both parties “political cover” in reaching an agreement that might otherwise be politically unpalatable? That sure as hell is not the case here. 

The Wright Amendment was a politically and commercially-charged issue between two airlines and two cities that also had national implications because airline activities so often do. Changing the union organizing process under the Railway Labor Act has implications beyond airlines and airline unions as well. I believe that by changing the rule, the NMB will be creating more instability on top of an already unstable airline marketplace.  And that has national implications. How many industries have interdependencies on the airline and railroad industries?  A stimulus question indeed.

The truth is that some at the NMB are looking to do nothing more than change a rule that would initially make it easier for unions to organize a largely non-union airline (Delta) and add/retain thousands of dues-paying workers to union ranks. But the ramifications have much longer-term implications that very clearly favor one side (union supporters) over the other (those who oppose unionization).  That’s one upshot of a draft rule that ignores rail and airline employees’ right to decertify a union or provide their personal contact information to union organizers.

It sounds to me like either the NMB and its proposed rulemaking should be put on ice, or a Presidential Emergency Board be convened in order to make sure that all input be considered.  At least in a PEB, history suggests that neither party will be totally happy. Inside baseball tells us that means a good deal has been reached.

In this case, like Wright, compromise would be right but only after all sides have had their say and issues heard and considered. Because otherwise, something tells me that the outcome will be wrong.

More to come, for sure.

Wednesday
Nov042009

The National Mediation Board: From Honest Brokers to K Street Politicians

Something is just not right about the speed with which the National Mediation Board issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) to amend the Railway Labor Act

I’m guessing that the reasons had more to do with politics than good policy. Something is just not right.       

In its proposed rule, the NMB is seeking to change the election process by which unions organize workers in the railway and airline industries. The new rule, which would change 75 years of practice, would for the first time determine the outcome of union elections based on a majority of those who vote rather than current practice, where a majority of all eligible voters must support joining a union.

What is laughable about this change, at least to this observer, is that the Board describes the NPRM as part of its “ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act.”  Funny, because the overarching statutory goals of the RLA is to minimize the disruption on interstate commerce stemming from labor-management disputes.  And this rule would likely do just the opposite: increase the likelihood of union activities that could wreak havoc on our nation’s commerce.

Never do I remember the use of the formal NPRM process to make such a significant change to labor law.

But before we go too far, it is important to note the dissenting opinion of the Chairman of the Board.  The NPRM was issued by NMB members Harry Hoglander and Linda Puchala – the two Democratic appointees on the three-member Board. The Chairman, GOP appointee Elizabeth Dougherty, in a formal dissent challenged the action of her fellow Board members

 “Regardless of composition of the Board or the inhabitant of the White House, this independent agency has never been in the business of making controversial, one-sided rule changes at the behest of only labor or management,” Dougherty wrote.  And it is this very mindset of Hoglander and Puchala in the drafting of the NPRM that smacks of politics, disregard for prior practice and arrogance in refusing to address subjects of similar importance in the labor arena, including the ability of employees to decertify a union and a union’s right to demand the personal contact information of employees they hope to organize known as an Excelsior list.

Let’s Talk Stability

On September 28, 2009 I blogged in a piece titled:  Airline Industry Eyes on the National Mediation Board,  that looked at this very issue..  The rule change was sought by labor – the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO as part of its efforts to make it easier to organize airline workers. But the proposed rule is loaded with the potential for unintended consequences, particularly for incumbent unions that might be the target of “raids” by competing unions encouraged by the possibility of picking up new members in an industry already heavily unionized. 

Stability is one issue Chairman Dougherty addresses in her dissent, albeit for different reasons:

 “The Board has repeatedly articulated important policy reasons for our current majority voting rule – including our duty to maintain stability in the air and rail industries,” she writes. “This duty stems directly from our statutory mandate to ’avoid interruption to commerce or the operation of any rail or air carrier.’ The Majority attempts to ignore this important statutory mandate by claiming that only our mediation function is relevant to keeping stability in the air and rail industries. This argument has no merit. The statute does not limit our mandate to only mediation, and it is disingenuous to suggest that our representation function does not play an important role in carrying out our duty to maintain stability in these industries. Moreover, the Board has repeatedly in the past raised this policy issue in conjunction with our representation function.”

But it is just that stability that would suffer in the case of more frequent labor disputes and work actions designed to cripple a carrier’s service.

Some will say that disruption of interstate commerce was one thing in the 1930’s when the RLA was last amended and yet another thing in 2009 to justify making changes to 75 years of practice.  Not so fast.  In the 1930’s, interstate commerce consisted more of construction materials transported by train.  Today’s economy is about “just-in-time” delivery of every commodity imaginable and that includes the crucial role of airlines in getting business travelers to and from their destinations.  Time sensitive materials and travel are critical to today’s economy and fundamental to the service modern airlines provide.  So avoiding disruption is as applicable -- if not more important -- today as it was then.

Why Should You or I Care?

I have been asked by many really smart people why I oppose this change. After all, it would only put in place the very election practice of majority voting that is at the core of our democracy.  From that perspective, I could easily wrap myself in the flag and say the change sought by the unions makes absolute sense. 

But let’s give it a closer look. Our election practices were established by the U.S. Constitution. The 12th and 17th Amendments changed the rules for electing Presidents and Senators, but only after careful deliberation.  And just as the Constitution establishes the framework for the establishment of the Federal government and its relationship with states and citizens, the RLA establishes the framework for the resolution of labor-management practices in the railroad and airline industries. 

I am not a lawyer. But I do know that there is much learned discussion around the issue of original intent as it pertains to the Constitution.  Changes can be made and have been made to that ruling document.  Similarly, changes can be made to the RLA.  But that should happen only after careful deliberation. Moreover, it should not occure on the whim of two NMB members.  I hesitate to even suggest that these changes are being imposed by the Obama Administration on a struggling industry as a way to pay back labor for its support during the campaign, but it is beginning to smell that way.

Should the Industry Really Care?

The fact is, this proposed rule change is aimed at a single airline, Delta, which is less-unionized than any other legacy carrier.  And as the nation’s largest airline following its acquisition of Northwest, Delta is clearly a tempting union target.

So should anyone other than Delta really care? There is probably plenty of water cooler discussion taking place in Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix to name a few airline headquarters. One can only imagine that, in their view and on one hand, it is high time that Delta has to deal with the same labor challenges that have burdened other airlines for decades.

Delta is unique in the industry in its ability to offer above industry W2 compensation in return for work rule and commercial flexibility.  That’s been possible because Delta isn’t constrained by union contracts that limit productivity, add rigid work rules and protections and add other fixed operating costs.  Under unionization this past practice and fact becomes a question mark.

But I believe that the industry should be concerned about this Board action, both in impact and in precedent. Assuming the rule is implemented as I believe it will be, then all airlines with unrepresented work groups should prepare for union organizing activity unlike anything this industry has seen in two decades.  AirTran, jetBlue, Republic/Frontier and SkyWest should stand ready.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that unions are all bad.  Good leadership on the union side and a willing management can make deals.  Look at the deals done in 2009.  Look at the most unionized carrier in the US industry – Southwest – which thanks in part to a strong relationship with its unions has managed to pay well and do well in the marketplace by building a great corporate culture and making productivity and customer service a priority

On the other hand, unenlightened and parochial thinking pervade the leadership ranks of many airline unions.  The industry will continue to face change and challenges. Unions that adapt and are able to let go of the past will flourish.  Unions that cannot adapt to the new direction of the global airline industry will struggle to deliver for their members.

Will unions grow stronger and gain members under the new rule? Probably. Does the NMB appear politically-motivated? Absolutely. That’s a real problem.

Today, several airlines are negotiating collective bargaining agreements under the auspice of the NMB. Whereas in the past the parties would have been sent back to the bargaining table to work out their differences, we might in the near future see a reckless use of the release process by a politically motivated Board.

[Note:  I am currently a local AFA appointed board member at Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. where the ALPA represented pilots have requested a release from mediation.  Writing on this topic is purely my own view on happenings at the National Mediation Board and in no way is intended to represent the views of Hawaiian Holdings, Inc., Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., or represent the views of local HAL AFA President, Ms. Sharon Soper.  The opinion stated is solely that of William Swelbar.]

What Does it Mean for Airline Unions?

I always watch with interest what James Hoffa and the Teamsters Union say about the airline and railroad industries.  In a November 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal article by Mike Esterl and Melanie Trottman on this very subject, Hoffa is quoted in support of the proposed change: “This reform lets workers choose a union the same way they choose the President of the United States,” he said. Whichever side gets the most votes, wins.”

But I’m guessing that Hoffa’s real goal is something else entirely. Because Hoffa and his Teamsters Union split from the AFL-CIO, they are free to raid another union by petitioning the NMB to organize workers represented by a different union.  The leaders of AFA, the IAM and ALPA ought to start looking over their shoulders now, because another union might be standing in the shadows. And that union might just be aiming for dissatisfied members that – whether out of anger toward the incumbent union or the struggling economy – might just be open to considering switching allegiances in hopes of getting a better deal. After all, under the RLA it takes only 35 percent of the workers in a “class or craft” to sign a card showing interest in a union.  And then, under the proposed rule, only a simple majority of the minority would be necessary to vote the incumbent union out. 

Imagine how tempting the prospect of signing up new dues-paying members from any number of small railroads around the country, whether for the IBT, the SEIU, or any other aggressive union that shows little interest in abiding by the etiquette of the House of Labor?  In industries in which two-thirds of workers already are represented by unions, a raid targeting disgruntled employees (an unfortunately large group in the airline industry) would present the best opportunity for a union to gain “market share.”

One can only assume that the strategists at the TTD and the AFA-CWA have thought all of this through. They must be counting on passage; otherwise, why would the AFA-CWA and the IAMAW have moved to withdraw their applications for single carrier determination at the merged Delta that is necessary to initiate a representation election?  And the fact that they’ve come this far leads me to believe that they have some pretty powerful friends in Washington, D.C.

Something is just not right

.