AA, pilots wrangling over talks

Tensions continue to rise in the contract negotiations between American Airlines Inc. and its pilots' union.

American officials told the pilots that they're "disappointed" with the pace of contract negotiations, which began nearly a year ago. In a letter to its pilots this week, the airline outlined its position and objectives and criticized the Allied Pilots Association.

"To date, the committees have reached no agreement on any contract proposal or term," wrote Mark Burdette, American's vice president for employee relations. "I am disappointed that these talks have not progressed further."

A hotline message to union members Friday afternoon called the letter "a clear attempt to counter" the union's "I Am Worth It" rallying campaign and to lower pilot expectations before a new member survey on compensation, work rules and benefits.

APA spokeswoman Cyndi Dawson suggested that the airline's letter constituted prohibited "direct negotiating" with the pilots, and she said the union plans to "pursue a focused and aggressive negotiating schedule with management."

"Your APA leadership - including the national officers, board of directors and national committee structure - is committed to leading the effort designed to achieve the contract we deserve," Ms. Dawson wrote.

In the Aug. 14 letter, Mr. Burdette pointed to the APA's calling for a 30.5 percent increase in pay rates, annual pay raises and a 15 percent signing bonus.

"As previously discussed with the APA, an increase of that magnitude, on top of our current industry-high unit labor cost, would only worsen our competitive disadvantage and return us to the destructive cycle we have been trying to climb out of," he wrote.

APA president Lloyd Hill has called the 30.5 percent pay increase "quite substandard," given where pay rates would have been, adjusted for inflation, if pilots hadn't accepted concessions valued at $660 million a year in 2003, when American was close to bankruptcy.

American also criticized the union for not sticking to the meetings schedule - meeting just 23 times since last October instead of the goal of three times weekly - and complained that the union has called for another two-month delay to conduct membership surveys and committee work.

The current APA contract isn't officially amendable until April 30, but American requested that talks begin last September with the goal of having a new agreement by next spring.

Since then, the talks have taken on a more adversarial tone, especially as top airline executives and employees got a second round of payouts based on the company's stock performance. The payouts in April were $160 million, up from $100 million in similar stock bonuses to those employees in 2006.

Two months later, the pilots overwhelmingly voted out their board officers in favor of ones who promised to negotiate more aggressively with the airline.

The volleys have continued this summer. American rolled out a public Web site - www.aanegotiations.com - presenting its position on the contract talks in July.

And last week, the pilots launched their "I Am Worth It" rallying campaign, asking members to send anecdotes to support an "industry-leading" contract.