Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dozens of American Airlines pilots face demotion, pay cut after losing contract dispute

Trans World Airlines (TWA) Boeing 767-231(ER) (22571/64) N608TW arrives at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX/KLAX) in October 2000.
(Photo by Michael Carter)

Dozens of American Airlines pilots are facing a demotion from captain to first officer and a corresponding pay cut after losing a contract dispute that traces to the company's 2001 acquisition of Trans World Airlines.

An arbitrator ruled last week that protections guaranteeing a limited number of captain positions to former TWA pilots, now employees at American, had expired.

The decision means 85 or more former TWA pilots could be demoted from captain to first officer, with a corresponding number of American pilots making the move up from first officer to captain. The difference in pay between the two ranks can be as wide as $75 an hour, according to a lawsuit relating to the case.

American and the Allied Pilots Association have avoided taking a side in the dispute, which pits two groups of employees against one another. But they'll have to sort through the fallout of the arbitrator's decision, which will alter the bidding priorities for a subset of American's more than 15,000 pilots and could force some to change their base of operations.

"Arbitration matters like this are decisions we have to respect. We'll work with (the Allied Pilots Association) to support anyone who is impacted by the decision," American spokesman Matt Miller said.


A matter of seniority

In the airline industry, seniority rules. For pilots, it affects what aircraft they fly, what schedules they work and how much they earn.

The issue of seniority becomes particularly tricky when integrating groups of pilots during the merger of separate carriers, an issue American tried to navigate with special protections for TWA pilots following its 2001 acquisition of the St. Louis-based airline.

The protections guaranteed a limited number of captain positions for those former TWA pilots outside of the normal seniority structure. Following American's 2011 bankruptcy, the agreement was revised to guarantee 260 captain positions on narrow-body aircraft and 86 captain positions on small wide-body aircraft for the TWA group.

Dispute pits pilots versus pilots

The recently-decided arbitration dispute dealt with when those protections should expire. The agreements set a trigger for expiration when a single TWA pilot hired in 1997, Magnus Alehult, accrued enough seniority to become a captain on any aircraft in American's fleet.

Alehult reached that threshold in October, but only had enough seniority to captain a smaller regional aircraft acquired through the US Airways merger, a plane type that wasn't part of American's fleet when the initial agreements with the TWA pilots were struck.

Former TWA pilots argued that the protections shouldn't expire until Alehult had enough seniority to captain a larger narrow-body aircraft.

But a separate group of American pilots filed a complaint to have the protected positions returned to the general pool, where they'd be available for bidding under the normal seniority system.

The arbitrator ultimately sided with the latter group, finding that "any aircraft" described in the expiration clause truly meant any aircraft, even if the type wasn't a part of American's fleet when the deal was reached.


(Conor Shine - The Dallas Morning News)

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