Monday, July 31, 2017

Ruling eliminates seniority protections for ex-TWA pilots in St. Louis

Sixteen years after American Airlines’ takeover of Trans World Airlines, the deal is stirring some new fallout at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

An arbitration ruling this month could result in a loss of seniority, pay cuts or moves to other cities for many of the ex-TWA pilots still working for American, including more than 100 here.

That’s according to Allen Press, a Clayton attorney representing three former TWA pilots who on July 20 asked a federal judge in Dallas to block the ruling. The three earlier had sued American and its pilots union over the issue.

Press said pilots tell him they also expect American to shut down its pilot base at Lambert, which is among 11 maintained by the airline. However, a spokeswoman for the airline said there are no plans to do so.

The ruling would end the last remaining seniority protections that ex-TWA pilots received when American took over the bankrupt TWA in 2001.

Some other seniority rights for former TWA pilots ended following a new labor agreement worked out in 2013 as part of American’s bankruptcy reorganization. At issue now is when the more limited protections cease to exist.

Press said there are currently 162 ex-TWA pilots working for American out of St. Louis — 80 captains and 82 first officers who function as co-pilots.

“They ultimately will be affected one way or the other,” he said.

In all, the legal challenge to the ruling contends, more than 900 former TWA pilots across the country would “suffer substantial and irreparable harm.”

The challenge asserts that at least 85 ex-TWA captains could be demoted to first officer because of the loss of seniority, resulting in a loss of pay of about $70,000 a year.

Among them is plaintiff Kevin Horner of Bowling Green, Mo.

However, under a new agreement between the union and the airline, they could avoid pay reductions by opting to become captains on smaller former US Airways planes, known as E-190s. Those planes were added to American’s fleet in the American-US Airways merger in 2013.

But such pilots would have to move or commute to Philadelphia, where those planes are based.

In addition, the suit says, many of the 150 other captains likely to retain that rank may have to shift to on-call positions outside their current home base, requiring them to move or commute to other base cities. Commuting pilots typically maintain apartments.

Many of the more than 650 former TWA first officers, the suit says, would also shift to on-call positions and see their paths to captain “yet again extended beyond that of any other American pilot.” This group includes plaintiff John Krakowski of Ballwin.

At issue is a provision that says the seniority protections would end when a particular ex-TWA pilot hired in 1997, Magnus Alehult, accumulated enough seniority to get a captain position on any aircraft.

The arbitrator said that occurred last September when Alehult qualified to become a captain on American’s former US Airways E-190 planes. The arbitrator agreed with three American pilots who had made that point in a grievance.

Press’ clients say the protections end only when Alehult gathers additional seniority needed to be a captain on larger planes that were in American’s fleet at the time the provision was worked out.

An earlier lawsuit filed by some former TWA pilots against American and the pilots union — the Allied Pilots Association — is pending before a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in New York, Press said. The case was shifted there from a federal court in St. Louis.

Press said closing of the pilot base at Lambert could result in some smaller planes being used on certain flights.

American, in a bankruptcy court filing in 2012 seeking an end to its post-TWA labor agreement regarding pilots here, said “hundreds of American’s pilots and many of its aircraft are committed to operations out of that facility that make no economic sense. These assets could generate a far greater return if redeployed.”

However, airline spokeswoman Leslie Mayo said last week that American has no plans now to shut down any pilot bases, including the one here.

American now operates 42 daily flights from Lambert, down from 417 in 2003. “I don’t see how (the arbitration ruling) would have any impact on St. Louis or the airport,” Mayo said.

A pilots association spokesman declined to comment.

Lambert’s director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, said American hasn’t notified the airport of any plan to close the base or make other operational changes. “They just opened a brand new pilots’ lounge,” she noted.

Even if the base eventually closed, she added, there might be no impact on the airport itself. “At the end of the day, they operate flights,” she said of American. “They could operate that without a base here.”

(Mark Schlinkmann - St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

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