American Airlines pilots say spot walkouts, not full strike, right way to go
Thousands of American Airlines pilots gathered Tuesday to strategize about work slowdowns and other headaches they might inflict on airline management if contact talks reach a breaking point.
The Allied Pilots Association held meetings at nine union chapters nationwide, briefing members on steps that may be taken if the National Mediation Board declares contract talks to be at an impasse. Union leaders said about 2,000 pilots attended nationwide.
The union is unlikely to call for a traditional strike, a move that could force American into bankruptcy. Rather, union leaders said they would rely on smaller, targeted job actions that could cause delays and cancelations without shutting down the airline.
"It's something that would be the equivalent of a big thunderstorm rolling into D/FW Airport," said union spokesman Scott Shankland. "It might take three or four hours, but passengers would still get to their destinations."
For example, pilots on a certain route or flying from a particular airport might show up several hours late, Shankland said.
He stressed the union would only authorize legal actions, and that the focus of a slowdown would be airline management, not passengers.
Joe Prem, a pilot based at Dallas/Fort Worth, was among about 300 who attended a meeting at the airport's Hyatt Regency Hotel.
"The lack of progress on the contract has been incredibly frustrating," Prem said.
He said he's willing to forego pay if called upon to walk off the job.
"Absolutely, I'd do it in a heartbeat," he said. "No one wants to get to that point, but if that's where we are, I wouldn't hesitate."
American spokeswoman Sue Gordon said the airline remains "fully committed" to negotiations, and reminded labor leaders that they have an obligation to avoid any interruption to the nation's commerce.
"In these difficult and uncertain times, it is imperative that negotiators focus on reaching an agreement that is in the long term interests of American’s pilots and the future of this airline," she said.
The negotiations, which began more than two years ago, have been deadlocked for months, and little has been achieved at the bargaining table.
Under federal law, airline unions are allowed to take job actions, such as strikes or slowdowns, only if the mediation board declares talks to be at an impasse.
And the president of the United States can temporarily halt a strike if the stoppage is deemed to be a national transportation emergency.
Union leaders have been arguing for months that talks with American are already effectively at an impasse, given the lack of progress. Pilots want raises of up to 50 percent, to regain wages they say have been lost due to concessions and inflation.
Management, meanwhile, is determined to keep labor costs under control, and contend that rivals, like Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, already have lower-paid pilots and offer fewer benefits.
American pilots earn more than $130,000 on average, although pay varies dramatically depending on seniority and the route flown.
Southwest is the only major passenger airline with higher-paid pilots.
Still, many American pilots have been working under reduced wages since 2003, when the union agreed to concessions that cut compensation and reduced some benefits. Those cuts allowed American to avoid a bankruptcy filing.
The outcome of negotiations could be impacted by the Obama administration. The president appoints the three members of the mediation board, two of whom are from the president's party.
Union leaders hope the new appointments will be more pro-labor.