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Pilots playing the safety card to goose negotiations - Part 2

For the second time, pilots seem to be questioning their airline safety as a negotiating ploy now that United pilots have filed suit in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York to issue a stay against the completion, set for Friday, to complete training on new procedures.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) move on United comes after the US Airways Pilots Association (USAPA) questioned US Airways safety prompting a suit by US Airways against its pilots. United accused the pilots of a bald attempt to influence negotiations on an integrated pilot contract covering both the United and Continental pilot groups. It cited FAA approval of its training procedures. Even so, United’s Master Executive Council Chair Captain Wendy Morse, denied the two were related.

ALPA wants more time to complete and absorb training before the company is issued its single operating certificate (SOC), saying issuing the stay of Friday’s deadline for incorporation of new procedures would allow management and union to negotiate their differences. However, United is hoping to achieve a an integrated pilot contract and SOC by year end, although it has acknowledged a new contract may not happen. Pilots will get their day in court Wednesday.

United pilots are being trained to take on Continental’s procedure and claim they haven’t had long enough to absorb them with Friday’s deadline for converting to them looming. They are also complaining that United’s former reliance on classroom training has been replaced by more computer-based training.

Training, said Ms Morse, consisted of a 54-minute slide show and a question-and-answer period. They object to the fact that it did not include classroom training. Pilots are also objecting to relying on increased automation instead of hand flying out of wind shear as called for with United pilots. Ms Morse questioned the number of procedural changes that needed to be absorbed in a short time.

Pilot dispute at US Airways uses safety as foil

Just last week a US district court judge agreed with US Airways that pilots were taking an illegal job action that slowed and disrupted operations, granting a temporary restraining order against the pilot actions that have been underway all summer to protest the slow labor talks with the airline. Finding the actions violated the Railway Labor Act, the injunction precludes sick-outs, work-to-rule campaigns or “any refusal to perform normal pilot operations.”

However, the judge also scheduled a hearing on a permanent injunction. The union reiterated its stance that no such slowdown was underway but when on to repeat its rhetoric on US Airways alleged “flawed safety culture.”

Even so, one passage in the court’s 45-page decision seemed to suggest that such statements strained credulity.

"At a time when USAPA was aware that anonymous individuals were calling for a slowdown using language borrowed from its own publications, this Court is incredulous that USAPA would have continued to use the same language unless it intended to signal that it approved of the slowdown, especially given that USAPA never denied that such language can operate as code for a slowdown."

Six years after its merger with America West, eastern US Airways pilots continue to fight their western counterparts at American West which recently spilled over into a work to rule that had US Airways pilots publicly questioning US Airways safety.

An integrated contract was resolved in arbitration but eastern pilots rejected implementation, kicking out their union in the process and replacing ALPA with the USAPA. Western pilots took USAPA to court and won, only to have that decision rejected.

Recently, the airline charged USAPA with an “illegal slowdown” suing them in court. Of course the union denied it but the evidence submitted in court clearly indicated there was an action going on which impacted its on-time performance at Charlotte and Philadelphia, the hubs out of which the crews operated. See related story on increased union activity impact on US carriersPilot union efforts at JetBlue fail, bigger issues continue across the industry

United unlikely to follow LCC union problems

The Delta/Northwest merger is seen as the smoothest on record and observers expect the United/Continental merger to follow suit. However, Delta/Northwest had a union deal early on in the process. Still achieving the disfunction of the East-West pilot dispute at US Airways is unlikely to happen at what will become the world’s largest airline.

Despite the problems, United Continental Holdings recently predicted a USD1.4 billion profit for 2011 as it leads the industry in revenue increases. It also forecast USD10 billion in revenues this year while seeing a drop in revenue per passenger from about 12% to about 9%.

CEO Jeff Smisek said the merger was going as expected although union progress was slower than anticipated. He hopes to achieve more than USD1 billion in cost and revenue synergies by 2013.

In addition to its merger challenges which include migrating from the Apollo to the Continental’s Share reservations system, United is expected to integrate its new 787 into its fleet early next year on new service between Houston and Auckand and Lagos. This happens at the same time as the reservations change and these new, thin routes are expected to test the economics of the 787.