Pilots asked to take sides in Freedom Airlines fight

 - May 8, 2008, 4:59 AM

Mesa Air Group’s designs for a new non-union subsidiary to fly its planned fleet of 64- and 84-seat jets continues to face stiff resistance from the powers that be within the Air Line Pilots Association, starting with none other than ALPA president Duane Woerth. The union’s top official traveled to Farmington, N.M., in late September to “educate” pilots training at Mesa’s ab-initio flight academy about the perceived evils of Freedom Airlines, scheduled to start service from Phoenix to Los Angeles International Airport and Long Beach, Calif., late last month. Although Woerth denied that ALPA would “blackball” pilots who choose to fly for Freedom Airlines, the ALPA president left little doubt about the union’s attitude toward those who do.

“As a pilot you can either lower the standard or raise it,” said Woerth, according to a report in the Farmington Daily Times. “You don’t reward bad behavior. Are we going to blacklist? No. But this is a small community.” Student attitudes ranged from staunchly pro-union to what many within the established pilot fraternity consider purely mercenary. But with little opportunity to find work within the traditional union track, the guarantee of 300 flying hours at Freedom Airlines has drawn interest from hungry pilots who, during better times, wouldn’t dare risk the consequences of wearing the “scab” label.

When AIN spoke with Freedom Airlines president Michael Ferverda on October 8, the division had just completed its FAA proving runs with one of its two 64-seat Bombardier CRJ700s, and expected to receive its Part 121 certificate within three weeks. Mesa took delivery of a third CRJ700 last month and planned to take another three by the end of the year. Delayed first by a strike at Bombardier this spring, the first revenue flight, last scheduled for September 25, suffered a month-long setback due to certification paperwork issues. Aside from LAX and Long Beach, Freedom Air plans to serve El Paso, Texas, and Fresno, Calif., within three weeks of its inauguration.

Slated to operate under a code-share deal with America West, Freedom began recruiting pilots, mechanics and flight attendants in March. By the middle of last month Freedom employed 100 people, including 44 pilots, most of whom came from within the Mesa organization. Meanwhile, another class of 12 pilots began type training for the CRJ700 on Bombardier simulators in Montreal. Each month the airline plans to train another 12 pilots and 10 flight attendants–enough to accommodate delivery of a single CRJ700.

After taking three CRJ700s during next year’s first quarter, Freedom plans to accept its first CRJ900 in April. Under next year’s delivery schedule, new CRJ900s will arrive at the rate of one per month and new CRJ700s will arrive at a rate of 1.5 per month through December. In January Freedom plans to begin training pilots at Arizona State University’s flight-training academy, located at the former Williams Air Force Base in Chandler, Ariz. Mesa has signed a deal to lease the space from ASU, which in turn will use any overflow time to train its own students on a pair of new CAE simulators–a CRJ200/700/900 sim and an Embraer ERJ-135/145 machine–scheduled for installation next month.

Although Freedom observed the staffing requirements for a separate operating certificate by assigning a director of maintenance and quality control and an assistant for each, as well as two audit personnel and a pair of line foremen, it will contract with Mesa Airlines for the use of its mechanics. It will also contract with Mesa for ground handling in Phoenix and use America West personnel at all outstations.

Ferverda, himself a former Mesa line pilot and one-time senior v-p of flight operations, characterized Mesa employee interest in jobs at Freedom Airlines as “very good.” The first two pilot classes consisted of ex-Mesa employees almost exclusively, he added. “I’m just starting to get into hiring people from off the street,” said Ferverda. By last month none of the Freedom Air recruits had come from Mesa’s soon-to-be defunct CCAir subsidiary, but Ferverda had just sent a letter to all CCAir pilots that invites them to priority interviews and guarantees priority hiring status.

According to Ferverda, CRJ700 and CRJ900 pilot jobs at Freedom pay between
8 and 12 percent more  than CRJ200 and Embraer ERJ-145 positions at Mesa. He called work rules and benefits “comparable.” Mesa Air Group CEO Jonathan Ornstein has offered captains willing to transfer from one of its existing subsidiaries a one-year leave of absence from Mesa or Air Midwest, with an option to renew for another year, and a two-year leave of absence for first officers. Under the offer, at the end of those time periods the pilots could return to their former positions with all the seniority they would have accrued if they had elected not to transfer to Freedom.

Of course, ALPA argues that such a plan could never work unless the union agreed to it. In fact, the union hopes to derail Ornstein’s plans completely by convincing a district court judge to declare an injunction against the establishment of Freedom Airlines. The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona has set an early December hearing date for arguments related to Mesa’s petition for a dismissal of ALPA’s July 17 lawsuit. Originally scheduled for November 18 but postponed for roughly two weeks after ALPA filed a counterpetition, the hearing will open a case that could either put an abrupt end to Mesa’s ambitions or drag management, union officials and pilots on both sides of the issue into a long and ugly turf war.

In its complaint, ALPA contends that Mesa has violated various sections of the Railway Labor Act by using so-called “whipsaw” tactics to divert work from Mesa subsidiaries to Freedom Airlines. The union has asked the court to force Mesa to suspend all operations at Freedom Airlines and return to “good faith” bargaining with Mesa Air Group’s pilots, specifically those flying for Mesa Airlines and Air Midwest. Citing a July 2 National Mediation Board ruling that all the company’s
subsidiaries constitute a single transportation system, ALPA contends that all pilots flying for Mesa subsidiaries should bargain for the same union contract.

The amendable date for Mesa Airlines’ pilot contract passed last December 2. Since then ALPA has charged Mesa management with refusing to set dates for negotiations, refusing to respond to union proposals and failing to issue proposals of its own, all in an effort to delay a new agreement until it established the non-union subsidiary as a vehicle to subvert ALPA’s bargaining power.

“The idea was to save these jobs for the Mesa pilots, and to save these aircraft for Mesa folks in the Mesa organization,” countered Ferverda. “We just honestly feel that Captain Woerth and ALPA national don’t see our 900s or even our 700s as regional jets. They would like to move those aircraft into a compensation arena that makes them economically unviable and infeasible. We see the regional jet as the future of Mesa, and we’re simply not going to turn our backs on this opportunity and let the ALPA folks price these aircraft out of business.”