America West Pilots Forge Ahead

By David Berkley, Supervisor of Communications
Air Line Pilot, April 2004, p.21

As special participants in the Association’s annual Leadership Conference, the America West pilot group’s Master Executive Council officers—Capts. Terry Stadler, chairman; Russ Webber, vice-chairman; and Brian Bevins, secretary/treasurer—recognized that they had endured enough challenges and rigors of leadership in 2003 to fill a textbook of case studies and to provide enough lessons for a leadership conference of their own. (See "ALPA Toolbox," page 28.)

And they face challenges of leadership ahead that likely will rival, or exceed, the trials they’ve confronted since taking office roughly a year ago. They’re the first to admit that they will have to keep their skills sharp.

Even though the pilot group approved a tentative agreement in a ballot that was counted Dec. 30, 2003, the post-ratification period affords the union leaders no time for a breather.

The members approved the TA by a narrow margin—771 for and 679 against—making contract implementation and union rebuilding in the wake of ratification critically important. The sweeping nature and sheer magnitude of the agreement—a roughly 350-page document replacing a predecessor of less than half that size—make the contract-implementation and -compliance issues that lie ahead even more important.

However, the MEC officers point to the numerous and, in some cases, sizeable improvements represented in the new contract, the aggressive effort in place to address implementation issues, and the short 28 months remaining before contract bargaining resumes, as reasons for optimism.

"We’re opening a new chapter of ALPA representation for the America West pilots,"
Capt. Stadler says. "We believe an outstanding opportunity for our pilots is within reach, but we must overcome sizeable obstacles in our relations with our management and get our whole pilot group pulling in the same direction before we can seize that opportunity."

Newly elected status representatives appointed the new MEC officers in March 2003, shortly after the members overwhelmingly rejected a tentative agreement that the previous administration had negotiated. The new officers inherited a collective bargaining process that the National Mediation Board had indefinitely suspended, or "parked," despite negotiations having languished for more than 2½ years.

The new MEC and its officers also inherited a largely disillusioned pilot group. Having sacrificed in the past, endured burdensome work rules, and received substandard, post-bankruptcy wages since 1995 so that their airline could grow, the America West pilots had high hopes for the collective bargaining process that had begun in early 2000.

Those hopes evaporated with the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and the airline industry’s economic freefall. Negotiations, when they eventually resumed, were constrained by the U.S. Air Transportation Stabilization Board, which had imposed caps on labor-cost growth among the preconditions for bailout loan guarantees.

Despite the NMB’s suspension of negotiations, the MEC asked for bargaining to resume in late July 2003, after management announced favorable earnings in the year’s second quarter and a new bonus-incentive program for management. Working closely with ALPA’s Representation and Communications Department staff, the MEC rolled out an aggressive news media campaign voicing outrage over management’s decision to institute the bonus program while it had nearly 3 years of unfinished business with the pilots. The outcry included a demand for an immediate resumption of contract talks.

These efforts succeeded, and talks resumed in the fall. With negotiations under way, members began to rally behind their negotiators in informational pickets and other demonstrations. "The response from those who volunteered was enthusiastic," says Capt. Webber. "I think many of our pilots felt beaten down by the hardships and disappointments of flying for this airline. Once we had begun our aggressive advertising and news media campaign and made progress in negotiations, many more of the members got involved," he says.

The negotiations yielded a second tentative agreement, but in early December 2003, the members rejected that TA by a margin of only five votes.

Meanwhile, the ALPA unit was running out of time to negotiate an alternative. The airline would close out its 2003 financial books in only a few weeks, and operational changes that had occurred during the year would result in a new calculation of costs for the 2004 fiscal year. That calculation would cause the money available to labor under the ATSB covenants—a function of cost per available seat mile—to disappear.

Capt. Stadler says, "On the one hand, we thought we could make a few immediate and necessary changes in hopes of meeting the major concerns of our pilots, while still preserving the money available in 2003, which would fall short of meeting the pilots’ expectations.

"On the other hand," the MEC chairman says, "we could extend protracted negotiations into 2004, risk losing a significant amount of money from 2003, and hope to meet the pilots’ expectations some day.

"In the end," Capt. Stadler says, "we went after the best deal we could get, so that we could begin building on it in less than three years."

Using feedback from road shows, the officers and negotiators found the tweaks they needed: revising the retirement plan, improving the "bridge" retirement funding plan, and revising the long-term disability plan. They added some value in these areas by capturing resources that went unspent when the pilots rejected the previous tentative agreement.

The MEC issued a third ratification ballot and received 53 percent ratification approval just before management closed out the 2003 books.

"Now we have to implement this contract, defend this contract, and prepare for the next negotiations," says Capt. Stadler. He believes that, as the pilots begin to realize the benefits of the new contract and witness their union’s vigorous enforcement efforts, pilot unity will improve.

The first signs of improvement to the pilots will be paychecks reflecting an immediate 11 percent pay increase (another 3 percent will be added before the contract becomes amendable in 3 years) and more-advantageous trip- and duty-rig calculations that will also put more cash in the pilots’ pockets. Other improvements, such as dramatic changes to schedules that require reprogramming preferential-bidding and crew-tracking software, will not become as clear for a few months.

In the meantime, developing pilot unity is key, because a splinter group advocating an independent union has been making waves. "They refuse to acknowledge the realities that influenced our contract negotiations and continue to suggest that lawsuits will magically eliminate NMB oversight or ATSB constraints," Capt. Stadler says.

"They also underestimate the value of the resources and expertise we receive as a result of our affiliation with ALPA," Capt. Stadler adds. "ALPA has helped us parlay a very narrow opportunity into a substantial gain," he says.

"Several pilots from other groups have congratulated us for making these gains when so many other pilot groups’ contracts have moved in the opposite direction," he adds.

The America West MEC officers, in speaking of their own responsibility to provide leadership, also stress the members’ duty to commit to becoming true citizens of a union.

"Sniping from the sidelines won’t cut it anymore," says Capt. Webber. "We are giving our members an abundance of information on their new contract and on how to maximize its benefits in making it work for them. We’ll need them to be our eyes and ears in monitoring compliance. With their help, we’ll find any deviations from the intent of our contract, in which case we’ll be on management like rabid dogs," Capt. Webber says.

The MEC’s secretary/treasurer, Capt. Bevins, becomes vocal on the matter of the rank-and-file’s role. "We’re calling on our members to step up and help us use the world-class services and resources of ALPA to continue improving our careers. ALPA gives us the autonomy to call our own shots, and backs our issues with international-union might," Capt. Bevins says.

"Our pilots hold us to a very high standard," Capt. Bevins continues. "That’s why we will work hard to implement and enforce this contract, while we prepare to build on it in the next round of negotiations."