Tulsa, Okla. Transport Workers Union and American Airlines Work Toward Common Goal

American Airlines is betting its future on cooperation between management and labor. But it remains unclear whether the airline can overcome decades of labor-management strife.

In his 20 years at American Airlines, Dennis Burchette had never experienced anything like it.

The airline mechanic and president of the Tulsa, Okla., chapter of the Transport Workers Union was huddled with a small group of union leaders and company management in a Sand Springs, Okla., hotel in January.

It wasn't contract re-newal time. Management wasn't asking for concessions, and labor wasn't pressing for workplace changes.

For the first time, they were working on a common goal -- finding ways to make American's Tulsa maintenance base into a profit center rather than a cost burden.

"We worked from sunup to sundown, talking about our future," Burchette said. Amazingly, he added, "Nobody dropped any F-bombs."

For Fort Worth-based American, the gathering -- which some dubbed a "come-to-Jesus meeting" -- was an extraordinary event that stemmed from an 18-month effort to bring management and labor together in a joint campaign to save the company.

With the help of a consulting firm, American has been working feverishly to overhaul the rocky relationship between labor and management. It's a goal that Gerard Arpey, American's chief executive, says is necessary if the struggling airline -- which has lost $7.3 billion since 2000 -- is going to survive.

"We all know this company's history when it comes to labor and management," said Jeff Brundage, American's senior vice president of human resources. "It wasn't very pretty."

The campaign has achieved some notable successes:

Last year, pilots worked with managers to arrange a schedule-sharing agreement with Alaska Airlines -- a type of deal that pilot unions often oppose.

When American wanted an onboard food-sales program -- which would create more work for flight attendants -- union leaders worked with management to create a sales commission for attendants, which helped them embrace the effort.

And when the airline wanted to streamline its maintenance bases -- something that typically results in layoffs -- union officials helped craft the plan, enticed by a management pledge that extra capacity would be used on outside contracts instead of cut.

One result of the maintenance overhaul is that, unlike most other major carriers, American is getting paid to perform maintenance for other airlines and companies.

A major symbol of that recently landed at American's maintenance base at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth. A Boeing jet that had been turned over by bankrupt United Airlines to an aircraft leasing company taxied into American's hanger for a maintenance check.

The airplane still sported the United paint job as it sat under the giant American logo on the hangar.

"No other airline is doing it this way," said Jim Little, the Transport Workers' international executive vice president.

In interviews, union leaders said they are impressed. They say the effort is more than just talk and describe unprecedented access to top executives and financial information.

Tommie Hutto-Blake, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said she was "floored" the first time Arpey called her to ask for her opinion on a strategy issue.

"We're used to fighting each other," she said. "But now we're all fighting for our survival."

The effort still faces serious challenges, however. Many rank-and-file workers remain unconvinced, and some have accused union leaders of selling out.

"I work with a lot of very bitter people," said Frank Granickas, a mechanic who works for American at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. "Morale is in the toilet, no matter what people tell you."

In a recent letter to Arpey, Granickas wrote that "your plan to pull together will only work if everyone is pulling in the same direction, and morale needs to improve before that can happen."

He argued, "We are providing bad service to more people than ever."

Indeed, a recent survey of Transport Workers Union members showed a majority of ground workers want union leaders to be tougher on airline executives.

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