ALPA answers NWA 70-seat proposal

 - March 22, 2007, 8:11 AM

The Air Line Pilots Association finally appears ready to play ball with Northwest Airlines as the Minneapolis-based company pushes for a new deal to allow 70-seat jets to fly within the Northwest Airlink regional network. But, as usual, ALPA has its own ideas about where those airplanes fit within the system and has proposed a separate division that would look conspicuously like US Airways’ MidAtlantic unit. Of course, ALPA’s plan would bar regional affiliates Pinnacle and Mesaba Airlines from expanding into the 70-seat jet arena with Northwest, leaving those affiliates with no choice but to search outside the Northwest network, potentially sending competitive ripples through the regional marketplace.

Memphis-based Pinnacle, which laid the foundation for an eventual venture outside the Northwest system when it launched an IPO early in 2002, has become the subject of talk surrounding a new deal with existing Northwest code-share partner Continental Airlines. Although Continental’s scope clause does not allow regional affiliates to fly jets that hold more than 59 passenger seats on routes involving a Continental hub (Houston, Cleveland and Newark), it does allow 60- to 80-seat jets between a Continental hub and a Northwest Airlines hub as long as those carriers’ marketing agreement stays in effect.

Mesaba, meanwhile, continues to pursue new code-share business for its Big Sky Airways subsidiary. This spring Mesaba broke off contract talks with United Airlines when the major airline asked Mesaba to sign a 10-year contract while assuming the liability for 15-year airplane leases.

Northwest’s existing scope clause bars Mesaba and Pinnacle from flying airplanes certified for more than 55 passenger seats except for Mesaba’s “grandfathered” Avro RJs. Although it allows an unlimited number of jets of up to 44 seats in capacity, it effectively restricts the number of bigger jets to 35 (not including the Avros), and expansion of that number depends on narrowbody fleet growth at the mainline. As a result, Bombardier offered a 44-seat version of its CRJ200 known as the CRJ440, 75 of which Northwest ordered in 2002.

Fleet Makeup in Question

In July Pinnacle took delivery of its 100th CRJ out of a contracted total of 129. As deliveries end this summer, Northwest must decide whether to add to the 44-seat fleet or wait to reach a deal with its pilots on 70-seaters. It plans to take another 72 airplanes, 19 of which must go to Pinnacle to satisfy its contractual guarantee of 129 jets. Mesaba still hopes to win the flying rights to the remaining 53.

ALPA’s proposal for 70-seat jets came in late July, a full year after Northwest asked for scope clause relief at Mesaba and Pinnacle as part of its Section 6 contract “opener.” Conceding that Northwest won’t consider extending its mainline pay scale to 70-seat jets, ALPA has offered to accept pay rates “competitive with those at other 70-seat operators in the industry.” Among the companies it cites is Comair, which pays its 14-year CRJ700 captains $100.35 an hour and five-year copilots $44.96 an hour, and American Eagle, whose CRJ700 pilots draw $84.79 and $34.75, respectively.

Introducing another so-called “jets for jobs” scheme, ALPA’s plan would grant furloughed Northwest pilots first rights to any jobs created within the new 70-seat operation. Anyone flying at Northwest would retain the right to refuse a job at the new division and accept voluntary furlough, and all the pilots flying 70-seaters would keep their place on the Northwest Airlines seniority list.

Of course, the proposal has already sparked protests from regional pilots who point to the recent US Airways-MidAtlantic contract revisions as evidence of ALPA’s contempt for the Duty of Fair Representation Act. Pilots from US Airways subsidiaries Piedmont and Allegheny Airlines, now integrated into a single carrier, have filed a class action lawsuit that charges ALPA with failing to defend their interests by unilaterally changing the US Airways Jets for Jobs agreement after the regional pilots approved a previous version.

Under the first plan, the pilots agreed to pay, work-rule and Jets for Jobs concessions under the premise that US Airways would place regional jets with Piedmont and Allegheny and award half the positions to their existing pilots. Later, after the airline decided to consolidate, US Airways threatened to close Allegheny if its pilots did not drop a small-jet grievance and agree to a merger. ALPA then allowed a vote to accept the proposal by a committee of eight MEC members to stand without ratification by the 327 pilots.

“From what I can tell from ALPA’s publications, [ALPA’s Northwest proposal] is a re-hash of the union’s MidAtlantic plan at US Airways,” said Dan Ford, head of the Crescent Springs, Ky.-based regional jet advocacy group, RJ Defense Coalition. “The fact that ALPA failed to mention its MidAtlantic experiment [in the July 21 Northwest MEC report, Across the Table] shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Once again, the argument centers on ALPA’s failure to adequately address the conflict of interest inherent in its simultaneous representation of mainline and regional pilots. “How can ALPA be expected to properly discharge its duties to the Mesaba and Pinnacle pilots when one of the union’s largest constituencies [Northwest Airlines pilots] is calling for the creation of another ‘preferred’ small-jet carrier?” said Ford. “Furthermore, it appears that the union still plans on restricting the 70-seaters both operationally and numerically. This indicates that the union still believes it to be something ‘less than’ the very capable airliner it really is.”