Airline Unions Facing New Cuts

Amid crushing fuel prices and unyielding competition, American Airlines unions face new concessions.

Ralph Hunter, an American pilot who heads the Allied Pilots Association, has called for a meeting to consider whether to open up contract talks with management.


Many American Airlines employees hoped that steep concessions approved in 2003 were going to be enough to restore the struggling airline to profitability.

But today, it's increasingly clear that more painful changes are in store for employees as American continues to hemorrhage money amid crushing fuel prices and unyielding competition.

The airline's pilots are already contemplating another round of concessions, this one centered on work rules rather than salaries and benefits. Last week, the union chief called a meeting of the board for Nov. 1-2 to discuss whether to open up contract talks with management.

And American's flight attendants were recently informed that beginning in December, the airline will cut the number of attendants on certain flights. That could lead to layoffs or reduce the chances of furloughed attendants being recalled.

"Many of you are feeling anger and frustration watching our sacrifices to date become diluted by the cold, relentless economics of the current airline marketplace," Ralph Hunter, an American pilot who heads the Allied Pilots Association, said in a recent speech to members. "American Airlines has yet to turn a meaningful profit" since 2003.

For flight attendants, the staffing cuts follow American's decision to eliminate in-flight meals from most domestic flights, opting to sell food instead. That has reduced the number of attendants needed to serve passengers.

The airline notified the attendants' union that in December, the company will cut staffing levels on short-haul flights, typically less than 90 minutes. In January, further cuts will take place on flights to Hawaii and some transcontinental flights.

The exact number of positions cut was not available Monday, and it was unclear whether the reduction could lead to more layoffs. Attendant cuts are often absorbed through voluntary employee leaves rather than layoffs.

An excess of attendants could also be absorbed through attrition, rather than furloughs.[>

Union officials were not available for comment.

Although the staffing reduction for flight attendants was allowed under their current contract, productivity gains for pilots would require changes to their agreement. That's why Hunter last week scheduled a meeting of his board.

That meeting will include talks on how to handle an expected increase in early retirements among pilots, which could lead to a shortage.

Like the 2003 concessions, however, any new changes to the contract won't come without controversy. In the last several days, six of the union's 18 board members have distributed a joint statement arguing that it is too early to consider another round of contract changes.

"Fellow pilots, we ask a simple question: Why the rush?" the statement read, adding that "productivity increases will stagnate your career progression."

The statement was signed by the chairmen and vice chairmen of the union's Miami and New York chapters, and the vice chairmen of the Los Angeles and San Francisco chapters.

In the past, the union's Miami and New York bases have often argued more stridently against airline management than other chapters.

Hunter, the union's president, has told pilots and board members several times in recent weeks that the labor group needs to help the airline become more productive. He warns that American could end up in bankruptcy without additional help from employees.

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