Airlines on Cusp of Change

As nasty as the dispute between Northwest Airlines Inc. and its mechanics has been, it may be the final such confrontation in aviation for several years to come.

With most big U.S. carriers flying in or near bankruptcy and unions battered by layoffs and concession demands, both sides are like exhausted prizefighters -- clinging to each other but unable to throw a punch.

Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based consultant with the Web site, compares what's happening in aviation today to what has happened with U.S. automakers and their unions.

"This will be the paradigm shift in airline labor relations," he said. "This is not going to be the high-paying job it once was. Thirty-five years after the auto industry, it's happening in airlines."

But if aviation unions are down, they're not out, at least not over the long term, said Darryl Jenkins, a visiting professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"Anytime you have a lot of givebacks, and we've had enormous amounts of them, you will also see some type of discontent about that," Jenkins said this week.

"If it doesn't show up right now, it'll show up later. So a couple years down the road, we're going to see a lot of discontent coming to the surface."

Indeed, the employee givebacks that aviation unions agreed to in the early 1990s -- when carriers such as Northwest were struggling to stay alive during that recession -- were followed a few years later by aggressive union demands for payback.

The pilots strike against Northwest in 1998 and other labor disputes since then mostly stemmed from employees' contention that Northwest hadn't sufficiently repaid them for their earlier sacrifices.

Moreover, if major domestic automakers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have reached a period of long-term labor peace and cooperation, that same spirit of mutual dependency hasn't yet taken root in aviation, Jenkins said.

"I came to the conclusion a long time ago that unions and management simply don't like each other," he said.

But, for now, many things have contributed to making aviation labor disputes a no-win situation for both sides -- especially for unions.

The number of strikes in commercial aviation has been diminishing for years. There were four strikes at commercial airlines during the past 10 years; for the decade between 1976 and 1985, there were 33.

Northwest alone recorded four strikes in the 1970s, when the airline got the nickname Cobra because its employees would strike at anything.

In many ways, the dwindling number of labor confrontations in aviation has mirrored what has happened in the nation's labor markets.

Union membership has shrunk from about a third of all U.S. workers in the 1950s to about 13%, and fewer unionized workers has translated into fewer strikes.

Perhaps even more important, the political ascent of conservative Republicans since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 has created a judicial and regulatory climate relatively friendlier to management than to unions.

That means that strikes, once started, have become tougher for unions to win.

Beyond the general malaise besetting labor, the aviation industry has presented some unique disadvantages to unions in recent years.

Airlines' cataclysmic financial losses after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks pushed the industry toward a financial abyss.

Airlines flying in or near bankruptcy have pummeled their unions for wage concessions -- and generally gotten them.

In some ways, U.S. commercial airlines would seem to have as many advantages as U.S. automakers did during the high-flying years of the 1960s.

Domestic airlines have been shielded by law from foreign competition in this country, and major carriers like Northwest, United and American operate from fortress hubs that protect them from most domestic competition, too.

Even with those advantages, airlines have struggled financially. The enormous fixed costs of operating huge fleets of jets means that airlines prosper only in the best of times.

Despite some bounteous years in the mid-'90s, when airlines made billions in profits, heavy losses are more the norm.

Perhaps alone among U.S. industries, commercial airlines as a group have lost more money over the past 50 years than they have made.

In addition, smaller no-frills start-ups have found a way to nibble away at the major carriers' most lucrative clients -- business travelers.

All of which translates into weakened unions hanging on in a weakened industry.

But Jenkins said there will come a day when unions and management shake off their fatigue and fight a few more rounds.

"They like a rumble," Jenkins said. "If they didn't rumble, why would they need each other? Combat is part of the model. So we will always have these things."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press