Pilot discontent with ALPA spreads among regional ranks

 - October 4, 2007, 9:45 AM

What started as an annoyance three years ago appears to have turned into a legitimate threat to the essence of the Air Line Pilots Association’s long-held strategy for protecting mainline pilot interests. The RJ Defense Coalition–the Crescent Springs, Ky.-based regional jet advocacy group led by Comair pilot Dan Ford–shows no sign of relenting on its crusade against ALPA’s attempts to, in Ford’s words, create “synthetic bargaining capital” to use against both airline management and elements within the union itself.

Now representing pilots from both Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, the coalition sits at the center of a pair of class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of each group by noted New York labor attorney Michael Haber. Under persistent fire from Haber and Ford, the use of scope clauses as a means to restrict small jets at regional airlines faces its sternest test to date, as the sides battle over the plaintiffs’ rights to thousands of confidential documents as part of the discovery process.

On March 17 Haber officially notified the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York that ALPA failed to turn over most of the documents as scheduled, and asked the judge hearing the cases to address the matter and decide on remedies. The court agreed, compelling the sides to participate in a conference call on April 8. At press time the judge had yet to rule on the issue–only the last in a series of roadblocks in a case that has already emboldened other regional pilots to pursue legal remedies of their own.

The lawsuits, simultaneously under adjudication since the ASA pilots filed their complaint last August, charge that the union has neglected its duty of fair representation by subordinating Delta Connection pilot interests to the benefit of the more influential mainline group. ALPA, of course, disputes the claim, characterizing the protests of Comair and ASA pilots as “unwise and untimely” and calling for a “new constructive and realistic approach” led by people with “knowledge and experience of the local situation.”

Sour Grapes?
Critics assert that the motivation for the lawsuits centers on greed and “sour grapes” over the sudden lack of mainline job opportunities for regional airline pilots. In fact, the ASA pilots seek $25,000 per plaintiff, while another suit filed this year on behalf of the pilots of Piedmont and Allegheny Airlines asks for $350,000 per claimant. Ford insists the main reason lies with defending a principle, and that any plea for damages does not invalidate the more important aim of fixing internal failures at ALPA. “The primary purpose of a lawsuit against your union is to bring about a change in its conduct,” said Ford. “This sort of action doesn’t work like the rest of civil litigation. It really is a tool for reform.”

In a commentary published in the February edition of ALPA’s in-house magazine, union president Duane Woerth encouraged members to adopt a wider view of the problems facing all pilots. To support his case, he compared today’s “fee for departure” arrangements with the contracts entered by airlines in the 1920s with the U.S. Post Office Department, and equated the amount of mail on each flight and the price of stamps with passenger load factors and yields. When airline management, wrote Woerth, could depend on a guaranteed profit, they actively sought the cheapest pilots available to replace their higher-paid crews.

“Most air certificate holders are back in the same business relationship that the original air mail airlines had with the Post Office,” said Woerth. “Just as airline [managers] acted nearly 80 years ago, today’s airline [managers] are orchestrating a pilot bidding war.” Woerth went on to cite management calls for competitive bidding by Mesaba Airlines pilots for a bigger chunk of Northwest Airlines flying as a “[threat] to every pilot in the brand.” But Ford points to a January 13 letter from the union to the Mesaba pilots that praises the merits of a clause that allows them to “bid” outside the Northwest Airlink agreement.

“Why does Mesaba need to bid on flying outside the Airlink agreement?” Ford asked rhetorically. “Because Mesaba’s growth is constrained by the Northwest scope clause and the Northwest MEC has made no secret of the fact that it will decide how much flying Mesaba and [Memphis-based] Pinnacle will perform.” In anticipation of a rebuttal that to encourage Mesaba’s bidding outside the Northwest system cannot by its nature constitute a conflict of interest, Ford added that any bidding would, in fact, more than likely pit Mesaba pilots against other ALPA members–namely those flying for Delta Connection.

While ALPA continues to promote cooperation between pilot groups, Ford accuses the union of “brazen hypocrisy.” Woerth’s talk of “brand scope,” under which pilots flying for mainline and regional divisions of the same company would coordinate their bargaining efforts for the common good, rings hollow with Ford, who characterized the concept as a ploy to justify the union’s “predatory mainline bargaining practices.”

In fact, the essence of the coalition’s argument lies with its claim that ALPA continues to bar regional pilot representatives from involvement in mainline contractnegotiations. A particularly egregious violation, according to Ford, centers on repeatedly amended “Jets for Jobs” agreements that grant mainline pilots rights to regional airline jobs at rates and seniority levels negotiated without participation of regional pilot representatives. Although ALPA’s brand scope proposal ostensibly guarantees “consultation” with regional pilot leaders, Ford dismissed the idea as “feel-good rhetoric.”

“ALPA is very good at reverse-engineering solutions,” said Ford. “It tries to define the problem to fit its preconceived solutions. The union’s internal problems have to be addressed internally. Labor agreements with management cannot fix an internal problem.”

According to Ford, the ongoing negotiations at US Airways couldn’t offer a more convincing case for his argument. Thatairline’s Jets for Jobs plan, he asserts, “rewrites entire sections of the regional labor contracts, and then basically says to the pilots of the wholly owned carrier that they have to accept these terms or they’re not going to get jets.

“You need a scorecard to keep up with [the US Airways contract revisions], but in principle Jets for Jobs violates the section of our contract governing compensation because they’ve negotiated their own pay rates for work on a different property,” he said. “They also have special bidding rights, violating what’s called Filling of Vacancies; they have rights to a certain number of captaincies, violating the seniority clause in the regional pilots’ contract; they also have furlough protection, which again gives a preferred group of pilots all these special rights and privileges that weren’t granted to other pilots on the same property.”

Attorney Haber now represents a group of pilots from US Airways Express subsidiaries Piedmont and Allegheny Airlines, recently consolidated into a single entity without direct approval from Allegheny pilots. The lawsuit charges that ALPA failed to defend the Piedmont and Allegheny contracts by unilaterally changing the US Airways Jets for Jobs agreement after the regional pilots approved the previous version. It also contends that ALPA misrepresented the deal’s benefits to the regional pilots; allowed or actively supported the diversion of promised regional jets to other carriers; and misrepresented whether Woerth approved the changes.

Allegations Fly
Now slated to fly only Dash 8 turboprops, the pilots claim they agreed to pay, work rule and Jets for Jobs concessions under the premise that US Airways would place RJs with Piedmont and Allegheny and award half the resulting jobs to their pilots. Two months later, in December 2002, Woerth allegedly signed a revised Letter of Agreement (LOA) with US Airways management that, in effect, transferred the RJ rights to “another wholly owned carrier,” where mainline pilots perform all regional jet flying.

After pilots raised suspicions that ALPA had negotiated a new LOA without the knowledge of the local union leaders at Allegheny, Piedmont and PSA, Woerth declared the deal “inappropriate,” claim the plaintiffs, and championed a new settlement. Only in July, after Piedmont and Allegheny pilots confronted him with the evidence, did Woerth admit he had already signed the LOA, according to the lawsuit.

Later, when US Airways threatened to shut down Allegheny if the pilots did not drop their small-jet grievance as part of a plan to merge the airline with Piedmont, ALPA refused to allow the 327 Allegheny pilots to vote on the measure, according to internal memos acquired by the RJ Defense Coalition. Instead, in spite of protests
by Allegheny MEC chairman Richard O’Leary, it allowed a committee of eight MEC members to vote on the proposal.

Although he said he knows of no effort to impose Jets for Jobs at Delta, Ford stressed what he described as the insidious nature of ALPA’s tactics. “ALPA engages in pattern bargaining,” he said. “We’ve erected vigorous defenses so we don’t get run over by this.”

Electing another union would seem to offer one bulletproof way to remove any concerns about conflicts of interest. Ford, however, sees no benefit in doing that, he said, given the experience of Chautauqua Airlines pilots, represented by the Teamsters, and the ALPA-represented pilots at American Eagle, who have watched American’s mainline pilot union–the Allied Pilots Association–impose its will on them with similar tactics.

“That would not solve the problem,” said Ford. “The issue is predatory bargaining, and divorce does not change that.”