This month promises to be full of news in the airline industry, and potentially in a big way. February is the month where we celebrate Groundhog Day. And like the movie of that name, we’ll probably see some of the same stories emerge, over and over again.
Colgan, Congress and the Regulators
One of the biggest, in my view, is the ramifications of Colgan 3407, the subject of many megabytes on Swelblog. The tragic crash of the Colgan Air flight came last year on February 12 and there have been a number of Congressional hearings since focusing on the safety of the airline system generally and the regional airline system specifically. Last week, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt and DOT Inspector General Calvin L. Scovell III testified before the House on the status of the FAA’s response..
In its Call to Action, the FAA is looking at fatigue; crew training; pilot qualifications; training program review guidance; pilot mentoring/experience transfer programs; pilot records; and code share agreements.
New scrutiny on code sharing comes courtesy of Reps. James Oberstar and Jerry Costello, who have demanded that the DOT IG investigate these widely-used agreements between airlines. The congressmen ask, at a minimum, that the investigation consider:
- Whether the DOT and the FAA have the legal authority to review code -share agreements between mainline carriers and their regional partners;
- How mainline carriers ensure that their regional partners operate at the same level of safety; and
- Whether the flying public has adequate information about code-sharing arrangements to make informed decisions when purchasing a ticket.
As if this story needed fuel to fire the debate, PBS Frontline will air an hourlong investigative report on the Colgan crash on February 9. If PBS publicity on the subject is any indicator, then this piece will be will be as much about sensational journalism as it is about half-truths. Already, Frontline is making much of the low salaries some regional pilots earn in a story centered on Colgan but that by all appearances paints all regional operators with the same brush. It will be important to parse the information offered and the story-telling in this piece.
oneworld and an Immunized Atlantic (and Pacific?) Alliance
As STAR and SkyTeam fortify their alliances with new partners, anti-trust immunity and “metal neutral” joint ventures; American, British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and Royal Jordanian await word as to whether the third time will be a charm for oneworld to operate with immunization across the Atlantic. In a January article, Lori Ranson of Airline Business writes about some of the issues before the regulators.
This is only one big decision affecting AA – another is the continuing saga regarding whether Japan Airlines will stick with oneworld or submit to entreaties from Delta and join SkyTeam. [NOTE: JAL announces its intention to stay with oneworld on 2/9/10] The media has been all over the board on this one, with this week’s predictions going oneworld’s way. This story has had more leads from unnamed sources than even the rumored merger talks in past years involving Continental and United, and United and US Airways.
But one thing is certain, and that is February 10, 2010, when four slot pairs become available to US airlines to serve Tokyo’s Haneda Airport under an “Open Skies” agreement between the U.S. and Japan. [DATE moved to 2/15 due to weather in Washington DC] Initial applications for those slots are due this Wednesday, with final submissions due to the US Department of Transportation by March 1, 2010. The winner could be flying as early as October of this year when the fourth runway at Tokyo’s downtown airport is scheduled for completion.
As part of the pact, Japan also made immunized alliance relationships for JAL and ANA a condition of the deal. And it has long been thought that if applications for immunity were not made by mid-February then it would be difficult for the US government to complete the necessary analysis in order to meet the October deadline. Few, if any, ATI applications have been approved in eight months or less.
United/Continental/ANA have already applied. JAL is bankrupt but needs to pick a partner soon. That means that the ongoing soap opera playing out in Japan may soon be coming to an end.
The National Mediation Board and Airline Strikes
On January 21, 2010 the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) ended a two-week intensive bargaining session with American Airlines without reaching a deal. Leading up to these talks, the union had been working hard to rally its members, even going so far as to stage a mock strike with limited impact. Next up: yet another round of mediated negotiations in Washington, DC beginning February 27.
Serious industry watchers may conclude that a a round of talks in Washington at this relatively advanced state of negotiations could mean that a “release decision” is imminent. Another viewpoint is that the NMB might be more likely to put the negotiations “on ice” given the wide gap between what the union demands and the company believes it is able to provide. Even in historically difficult times for the US airline industry, the APFA’s rhetoric suggests that the union will pay little to nothing in efficiency in return for the improved economics it seeks. So these talks may be the next milestone marking how Obama’s NMB will deal with labor negotiations in the airline industry.
If nothing else, the APFA has been reckless in talking about a strike. Long-term observers may recall that the union pulled off a coup in 1993 with a strike even the airline didn’t think would happen; and the union leaders seem to think they could do it again. So as APFA’s strike talk continues, American did what a responsible airline must do, confirming in a media story that it is working with the FAA to prepare, if necessary, to train replacements if the APFA strikes. Clearly the news story made a few APFA members nervous as, shortly thereafter, APFA President Laura Glading criticized the company, calling its contigency plans "an ill-conceived and doomed strategy." My question to Ms. Glading is: How, then, is your strike rhetoric not an ill-conceived and doomed strategy not only for your members but for all employees at American Airlines?
As a footnote, last week the story took an amazing turn with news that former TWA flight attendants – nearly all of them furloughed after the APFA put them on the bottom of the seniority list following AA’s acquisition of TWA's assets -- would be willing to cross a picket line and work if the APFA went out on strike. Now I wonder how much time Glading is spending reliving the strike of 1993 when faced with the prospect of an airline ready with trained replacements at hand, including a group of flight attendants with an axe to grind against her union?
Finally, February may be the month we get a decision from the NMB following the effort of two Board members to change by fiat the law that governs labor law in the railway and airline industries and would make it far easier for unions to organize workers. The decision has, however, generated a tremendous amount of comment and controversy, so we may be waiting until March Madness for that story to break.
Stay tuned. It may be a wild ride.