ALPA Bargaining Conference Tracks Express Carrier Trends

Participants agree that a coordinated ALPA strategy is needed in response.

Air Line Pilot, September/October 2002, p.22

By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

If the graphs charting airline industry trends and the thick binders comparing airline contracts gave the appearance of a meeting of airline analysts in ALPA’s Herndon, Va., conference rooms in July, that wasn’t far off the mark.

The first Collective Bargaining Conference tailored specifically for pilots from ALPA’s Group C and D carriers drew a full house—and favorable reviews—as attendees put the so-called express segment of the industry under the microscope.

"[Express carriers are] getting to be a big part of the airline industry, and it’s only going to get bigger, not smaller. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

The conference was the first chance for the pilots of these carriers—with the benefit of the Association’s data and analyses—to discuss in a group setting the increasingly important economic role of express carriers in airline systems—and to begin to craft a collective strategy on securing stronger contracts.

Establishing such a conference was one of the recommendations of ALPA’s Bilateral Scope Impact Committee, which the 2000 Board of Directors established to examine the interrelationships between carriers in airline systems.

This first session drew participants from Air Canada Jazz, Air Wisconsin, American Eagle, Atlantic Coast, Atlantic Southeast, Comair, Continental Express, Mesa, Mesaba, Midway, PSA, and Skyway.

ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, who opened the meeting, observed that the Comair strike changed the entire express airline business, because "it changed managements’ attitude about how they were going to manage pilot costs inside network carriers.…

"The Comair strike, preceded by the Atlantic Coast contract, and followed thereafter by the Air Wisconsin contract," Capt. Woerth told attendees, "said to airline managements that ALPA was committing the union’s resources to the pilots of these carriers.… If we could pull off an 89-day strike at a regional carrier to get that kind of result, and if right behind it, every single carrier was going to follow the pattern Comair bargaining had established, the managements of those carriers knew that their game plan was not going to work anymore. They were going to have to change."

The airline managements’ new "game plan," which has escalated since the beginning of the year as economic conditions have sputtered, is to use all of a carrier’s "moving pieces" to reapportion or divide up flying, to serve as strike insurance in vulnerable hubs like Cincinnati, and to try to keep the union off balance in the process.

Capt. Woerth said that "managements recognized that the only way they could break up ALPA is to divide it into as many individual pieces as possible and have pilots compete for jobs that would go to the lowest bidder.

"The buzzword right now is to have a ‘portfolio’ of code-share partners," Capt. Woerth added. "If three would be good, nine would be better, and 12 would be fantastic.… That’s what managements are being told: Never expose yourself to a Cincinnati again. Make sure even Cincinnati has at least two [code-share partners]—and if it’s a bigger hub like Atlanta—three or four, so that not any one of them can completely shut the hub down. "

He urged that the pilots of all carriers within airline systems develop a "system view" of scope to prevent their managements from exploiting scope conflicts and begin to formulate a "branding strategy" to ensure that system flying is not performed by pilots working under substandard contracts.

To use Northwest as an example, he noted, the MEC chairmen of Northwest, Mesaba, and Pinnacle (formerly Express I) "would have to have the same strategies in their scope clauses before anyone gets to use the Northwest brand—our ‘scoped-in’ brand."

Throughout the 2-day conference, participants were reminded that coordinated planning and a commitment to unity were the strongest weapons to fight back against a management tactic of divide and conquer.

Ana McAhron-Shulz, director of ALPA’s Economic & Financial Analysis (E&FA) Department, gave an overview of the sector’s phenomenal growth. Since 1985, passenger growth at express carriers has consistently outpaced that at the mainline carriers. Besides passenger feed, they’ve been a steady source of profit, as generally lower operating costs at express operations have produced profit margins greater than those at the majors.

Small jets’ popularity continues to rise. More than 4,500 small-jet flights operate daily in the United States, nearly twice the number recorded just 2 years ago. And their use will increase, as major carriers have amassed firm orders and options for more than 2,500 small jets over the next few years.

Bruce York, assistant director of ALPA’s Representation Department, led participants in detailed comparisons of contract provisions covering not only pay rates, but also work rules and benefits, compiled by ALPA analysts.

Pilot negotiators, by studying where their contract provisions fall on the spectrum, York noted, will be better equipped to set goals in future contracts—to close gaps among express carriers, and also those between the express groups and their counterparts at the larger airlines. Eliminating the differences, York said, "takes away the ability of managements to shop the flying around to the cheapest labor." The aim, as the union has repeated so often now that it has become a mantra, is to take pilots out of the competitive equation.

The audience also heard from other staff members of ALPA’s Representation and E&FA Departments, plus members of ALPA’s Communications Department, who sit in on designated "A-team meetings," to provide specialized support for express carriers preparing for or going through negotiations. The "A-Team" concept marshals all of ALPA’s staff expertise, pilot resources, and outside services (such as independent polling) into a coordinated package that can assess an individual pilot group’s needs and expectations, and set appropriate goals, York said.

But most of the forum was given over to the pilots in attendance—sharing their own insights into the industry and their experiences in recent bargaining.

The Comair pilots’ MEC chairman, Capt. J.C. Lawson, said, "Management’s attitude toward the pilot employee group has been markedly different since the strike." In the year since the ratification of their contract, management has begun to acknowledge the pilots with something more than grudging respect. Capt. Lawson said, "Pilots have been asked for their input on everyday issues, such as training, scheduling, and other operational problems. We have worked together with management to best maintain the operation of the airline without undue hardship to the pilots."

John Mondus, chairman of the Air Wisconsin pilots’ Negotiating Committee, observed that the education of the pilot group is "a critical part of the process" in building unity.

Harder-edged bargaining is in evidence at carriers like Mesa and CCAir, where direct appeals to the pilots from management have become the norm. "Jonathan Ornstein [Mesa CEO] has a full-time PR person," quipped Capt. Robert Henry, the Mesa MEC’s vice-chairman. "We need to counter all the propaganda that management is putting out."

Other pilot groups that are currently in negotiations weighed in as well, including Continental Express. Negotiations for Continental and Continental Express are proceeding, and the two contracts become amendable on the same date—a provision negotiated during contract talks for the present agreement. Even before Continental’s reentry into ALPA last year, the mainline and affiliate groups worked hard to establish a cooperative relationship because they recognized it was in their mutual best interests.

And those interests, at their most basic, are not very different. A poll of express carrier pilots conducted on behalf of ALPA in May determined that pay rates, job security, retirement benefits, and career advancement were the "big four" issues on the minds of these pilots, reported Phil Comstock, founder and president of the Wilson Center for Public Research, who has taken readings on member expectations for ALPA and other AFL-CIO unions. The pilots of larger airlines are concerned about the same four issues.

Addressing the conference participants, ALPA’s general manager, Jalmer Johnson, noted that the union is planning to direct more resources toward its express carriers, expanding communications and improving training to give MECs the tools to better serve members.

Johnson said an Express Task Force will be set up within the Collective Bargaining Committee to address those pilots’ unique issues. ALPA’s executive vice-presidents will play an expanded role in mentoring express pilot groups in negotiations.

Capt. Woerth said he will appoint an express coordinator to serve as liaison between his office and this important part of the airline industry.

At the forum’s conclusion, York suggested that a working group be formed to continue "to look at the data and determine where you want to go," and attendees agreed. As one observed: "This is getting to be a big part of the airline industry, and it’s only going to get bigger, not smaller. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

Mesaba Master Executive Council chairman, Capt. Tom Wychor, said it best: "Pilots of large and smaller carriers will be successful if we share a future vision for our profession and work together to protect our pay and working conditions. This kind of meeting is a great first step."