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Wednesday
Oct032007

All Eyes on Texas

As the airline industry turns away from the round of labor restructuring that began in 2002, it is now at a crossroads. Pilot negotiations now underway, or about to begin, at each of the Texas carriers underscore how difficult this next round will be. And depending on which side of the table you sit, these negotiations are blessed and cursed in many ways.

In each case, fragility rules the day, whether by the condition of airline balance sheets, relationships, expectations, competition, over promising, under delivering. What is clear at the outset is that U.S. airlines need to seriously reexamine their communications to employees and shareholders if they are going to successfully negotiate this treacherous path.

I rank upcoming negotiations at the Texas-based airlines from easiest (nothing will be easy) to most difficult (requiring a new prescription in the rose colored glasses) in this order:

1) Continental, in that the company and its pilots negotiated a protocol agreement that will help preserve effective communications and a productive process.

2) American, in that, by virtually any metric, its pilots are already at the top of industry in terms of total compensation but have the ability to create currency through improved productivity that might be used to subsidize other parts of a new agreement; and

3) Southwest, in that the company and its pilots already lead the industry in productivity click here and as a result do not have much “give” on that front;; have the highest average wages click here; and face slower growth. Man, I would not want to be in Gary Kelly’s shoes on this one.

A case can be made that this upcoming round of negotiations with airline unions may be the watershed event since deregulation. It could go far in determining tomorrow’s airline winners, losers – and mere survivors. Remember Eastern and Pan Am. Every 15 years or so something happens that changes the game.

So why are all eyes on Texas?

Continental and the Air Line Pilots Association’s negotiating protocol paves the way for them to begin bargaining early in an attempt to complete negotiations by the scheduled amendable date of December 31, 2008. American’s contract with the Allied Pilots Association is amendable in April of 2008. And Southwest and its pilots are currently working under an extended agreement that is currently amendable

In my view, Continental has one of the best – if not the best -- management teams of all the network legacy carriers. They were first in signaling the end of the small regional jet euphoria – or, as the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, would call it “exuberance.” Continental has leveraged its Newark hub to grow transatlantic flying (a model others are trying to emulate but with population bases one-sixth the size of the New York CMSA – but I digress); and they have continued an open communication with all of their employee groups that evolved after the airline emerged from bankruptcy hell in the mid 90s and has clearly led to a good internal operating environment.

In Continental’s case, neither the management side nor the labor side negotiate agreements that prohibit the goose from laying “golden” eggs for all stakeholders. They, too, negotiated concessionary agreements outside of filing for court assistance but they did not have to go near as deep given the competitive pay rates and productive work rules in the collective bargaining agreement.

Between the two Texas network legacy carriers (NLCs as we refer to them at MIT), American faces the toughest negotiations. Its cockpit crew members currently have the highest total compensation per pilot in the sector. More importantly, when total compensation is calculated (wages, pension and benefits and personnel expenses as dictated in the contract) AA has the highest pilot cost per block hour of any carrier in the industry click here.

Given this unenviable cost disadvantage, is it any wonder why American did not immediately agree to the whopping 30.5% pay increase and other sundry contract enhancements demanded by the APA’s prior administration – and now we wait on a new proposal that is speculated to be even more? In fact, that number is uncomfortably close to the number sought by then-Chairman of the United Pilot MEC, Rick Dubinsky during the dreaded summer of 2000, which all but killed the UAL “golden goose” and forced the carrier into bankruptcy. It was said to me at the time that the tentative agreement made nearly two-thirds of United's international flying unprofitable. Now, as a result of the extended trip through bankruptcy, UAL's pilots are among the lowest paid versus the highest paid in the industry.

American’s pilots today enjoy a cost per block hour advantage against no major competitor in the industry click here whereas Continental enjoys a cost per block hour advantage against four of its six NLC competitors.

But it is American’s cross-town competitor, that faces the toughest labor situation of all, at least to this observer. Yes, I mean Southwest -- the envy of the industry in terms of pilot/employee productivity. And therein lies the rub. The magic in collective bargaining – and historically for Southwest - is to find a way to trade productivity for higher wages. When you have a pilot group that flies an average of 65 hard hours per month against a mandated industry maximum of 1000 hours per year, there is not much room to move. This, on top of the fact that Southwest pilots are already the highest compensated in terms of average salary per pilot along with an arguably rich benefit package – begs the question: where do they go from here? As growth slows, it will be increasingly difficult to move the “productivity needle” through operational changes click here. And don’t look now, but Southwest pilots fly the least number of available seat miles per dollar of total compensation than even the network legacy carriers – output per labor dollar has declined more than 25% since 1995 click here.

So as we watch the airline labor negotiating world begin the contract kabuki dance, all eyes should be on Texas. Like it or not, the concept of pattern bargaining still is alive and well in the industry and it is just as much of who’s on first (industry leading) as it is who is going to go first – and set the pattern?