Airline Unions Facing New Cuts

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.

But he has also stressed that he does not favor any contract changes that would reduce pilots' pay or benefits or result in more layoffs.

American executives are aware of the union meeting, but they declined to comment on the possibility of more concessions from pilots.

"Hopefully, we'll get more details from them after the meeting," spokeswoman Lisa Bailey said.

Union employees approved $1.6 billion in concessions, primarily pay reductions, more than two years ago.

Nonrepresented workers and management absorbed an additional $200 million in cuts.

At the time, most believed that American would return to profitability with its lower labor costs. But fast-rising fuel prices have gutted most of the savings, and heavy competition has kept the airline from passing the extra costs to customers.

The financial carnage has pushed two other major carriers, Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines, into bankruptcy. That's a fate that most employees want to avoid, even those who oppose more concessions.

As grim as things seem, the news hasn't been all bad. Flight attendants scored a victory in recent days with an agreement that allows additional rest on layovers between flights.

For months, many attendants have complained that they are required to work flights with just a few hours of sleep, a provision that was part of the 2003 concessions. Union leaders have lobbied Congress to beef up federal rules on rest for attendants, but so far with little success.

Under the new agreement, attendants will be guaranteed eight hours of rest between flights, effective Dec. 2, on domestic and Caribbean flights.

"While this doesn't bring us back to pre-2003 rest provisions, it is a major step in our efforts to provide you with relief," said Tommie Hutto-Blake, the union's president, in a message to attendants.