Archive Widget

Entries in Pattern Bargaining in the Airline Industry (2)

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?

Monday
Aug172009

US Airline Labor Says Cyclical; Reality Says Secular

Last week, the Labor Department reported preliminary unit labor cost and productivity numbers for the second quarter. It reported that non-farm productivity increased at an annual rate last quarter of 6.4 percent and unit labor costs decreased 5.8 percent. The increase in productivity was the highest since the third quarter of 2003 and the decrease in unit labor costs was the most since the second quarter of 2001.

In theory and in practice, highly productive work forces give companies flexibility in economic upcycles as well as downcycles. That means flexibility that helps companies meet demand – including flexibility to increase wages in return for greater productivity as higher product output can be achieved with less labor input. During this difficult economic period, second quarter corporate earnings results generally exceeded expectations.  Some amount of corporate success in the quarter can be attributed to increased workforce productivity, as many jobs left unfilled meant more work for those on the payroll.

But this is not, sadly, the case in the airline industry.

The Reality of Today’s Airline Revenue Environment

This morning, The Wall Street Journal carried a piece by Susan Carey entitled: “Airline Industry Sees Pain Extending Beyond the Recession.” In this critically insightful piece, Carey examines the relationship of airline revenue to US Gross Domestic Product. “For decades,” she writes, “U.S. airlines could rely on a remarkably stable relationship between their revenue and gross domestic product. Year after year, domestic revenue came in at 0.73% of GDP on average, and total passenger revenue was equal to 0.95% of GDP. For the year ended March 31, domestic revenue was 0.54% of GDP, while total passenger revenue was 0.76% of GDP.”

In the article, Carey cites US Airways President Scott Kirby and his view that the rapid growth of discount airlines is the primary culprit behind what he called "a long-term secular decline" in the revenue-to-GDP relationship.

“Since [before] Sept. 11, low-cost airlines have grown rapidly, putting downward pressure on fares, while travelers increasingly shop for the cheapest tickets on the Internet.” Carey writes. “The Transportation Department estimates that budget airlines now account for 40% of the domestic market, up from 22% in 2001. While lower fares stimulate demand, Mr. Kirby said, airlines still wind up losing revenue overall.”

Carey also offers props to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Airline Data Project, citing data there that “if the revenue-to-GDP ratio had stayed where it was pre-2001, the airlines would have raked in an additional $27 billion in revenue in the year ended in March.”

She continues,”if thrifty consumers and cost-cutting businesses are this recession's legacies, airlines will be forced to shrink even more. Growing smaller means parking planes, laying off workers and dropping destinations, meaning potential customers have fewer reasons to book. Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines Inc. cited a gloomy revenue outlook for the rest of the year in its plans to cut more management jobs. If passengers don't return to the skies and fares don't rise, some airlines could run low on cash, raising the specter of additional bankruptcies.”

The US Airline Industry is Neither Flexible Nor Agile

An industry governed by a seniority system is virtually assured of decreased productivity as capacity (productive output) is reduced. We’ve recently posted our analysis of 2008 US airline employee compensation and productivity on the Airline Data Project. And that data paints a very clear picture: by the end of last year, US airlines showed neither increased productivity nor decreasing wages, despite an industry beset with very sick revenue generation.

What the data does demonstrate is the industry’s difficulty in its efforts to shrink and realize immediate labor cost benefits. To get smaller, legacy airlines lay off employees – those, of course, with less seniority -- and end up retaining those employees that have accrued more time off. Therefore, more labor is necessary to do the that reduced level of flying. Compounding the problem, the employees that remain are paid at higher hourly rates, trending the average wage for employees upward.

Using Pilot Labor as an Example

Overall, the industry has made tremendous progress in increasing the average number of flight hours per month per pilot – a necessary increase over the artificially low “monthly maximums” that pilot unions protected through collective bargaining agreements since the early years of this decade. [This trend was generally the case across all airline employee groups as well.] But what I find most interesting is this: after years of sequential progress, each of the network carriers nonetheless experienced a decline in pilot productivity in 2008.

I think it important to mention the Delta and Northwest pilot productivity data appears to be affected negatively by their merger completed in 2008’s fourth quarter. But the declines in United’s pilot labor productivity appear to me to highlight the conundrum a unionized airline industry faces – the inability to reduce workforce in concert with capacity.

With productivity in decline, average salaries per pilot equivalent generally increased in 2008 versus the prior year. On the other hand, average salary and benefit costs per pilot equivalent show mixed results. But there are a lot of factors in that calculation, including the costs driven by defined contribution pension plans as companies made historically high contributions; modest increases in compensation negotiated during the restructuring periods; and uneven financial results as many airlines attempt to reduce health care costs and other efforts related to restructuring.

Most disturbing are the trends in output per dollar of total pilot labor cost. The most important metric to me is the marginal cost of a unit of output. Consider the trends in Available Seat Miles per dollar of pilot cost, where labor costs are increasing faster than capacity is being produced. The same downward trend is evident when looking at output per dollar to all employee compensation – which amounts to a steady and stubborn increase in labor costs to productivity that could have a particularly negative impact on Southwest and American over the long term absent a significant new source of revenue.

You Cannot Look at Labor Costs without Understanding Productivity and Revenue

The Journal piece could not have come at a more important time as it provides the revenue backdrop against which all labor negotiations are set. The economy may not continue to shrink, but reality for the airline industry is that its piece of the economic pie is shrinking. While it’s hard to know if the continued sequential relationship of revenue as a percent of GDP will continue, it is increasingly evident that the relationship is not returning to that of the 1980s and 1990s heyday upon which historic labor negotiations patterns were built.

Labor needs to grasp that revenue premiums generated by the legacy carriers are largely gone. When all pricing is transparent and any Internet user can compare any airlines’ fare on any route, there is little room to cross-subsidize, or any grounds for expectations that the industry can repay concessions granted in the past. The revenue environment absolutely underscores that this is the right time in the industry’s maturation cycle to rethink how employees are compensated.

The National Mediation Board is not the answer. There is little logic to the notion that the company and the unions can come in with wide disparities in their respective positions and the Board will merely split the difference. Not unless either party is willing to accept the inevitable result: that this type of decision in today’s world would likely force another carrier into, or back into, bankruptcy court.

Historically, “pattern bargaining” has created an inflationary cycle in which labor groups chase best contracts among other labor groups in the industry. This practice, however, ignores the competitive mix and thus the revenue environment in which any carrier operates.. The only relationship that matters is an airline’s unit cost relationship to its unit revenue. And that is different for every airline.

Simply, Changes Are Secular and Not Cyclic

This is a subtle point. Cyclical and seasonal changes in a longer-term trend line are generally easy to identify and explain and are supported by historic patterns. However, when the changes in a trend line cannot be easily explained in line with historic patterns, then the pattern is broken. We know that the US airline industry’s revenue relationship since the fourth quarter of 2000 has been in decline. We know that the trend cannot be fully attributed to either seasonal patterns or cyclic economic variations. So, those variances that we can’t explain usually point to a permanent or secular change in the industry – and in the airline industry the change has been underway for some time. A return to the past is, quite simply, unlikely.

Therefore airlines will be forced to either adapt their operations to the new environment or to accept their fate in the airline graveyard. A revenue environment that has atrophied to this level can only support so much cost. Therefore as labor negotiations continue into the fall and winter months and become a bigger airline industry story, it is important to acknowledge this change. If I am a union leader, I would bet on smaller fixed wage increases and include a bet on an improving revenue environment as the economy improves in return for flexibility in order that companies can quickly adjust their respective operations.

This is one reason I like what Republic Airlines has accomplished with multiple brands under one umbrella that can succeed in an industry where one size no longer fits all. In some ways, it is not dissimilar to what the successful mega carriers in Europe have been doing all the while the US wallows in the unsustainable cost structure of its past. In this industry, wallowing is a secular trend to be sure.

Is US airline labor ever going to get that featherbedding their own membership roles is actually hurting a smaller number of employees necessary to support a struggling industry?