Eagle pilots stew over new Connection contracts

 - May 29, 2008, 8:07 AM

As Chautauqua Airlines took delivery of its first four 44-seat Embraer ERJ-140s on December 1, the Air Line Pilots Association prepared to intensify efforts to bar the Indianapolis-based airline–or any carrier other than American Eagle–from providing feed for American Airlines under the American Connection marketing identity. Lawyers for the American Eagle Master Executive Council and the airline plan to take part in arbitration hearings next month, by which time Chautauqua will have taken delivery of at least seven of the new regional jets to support its transition from TWA Express to American Connection in St. Louis.

The case represents a rare instance in which a regional airline’s pilots have invoked their collective-bargaining agreement’s scope clause in an effort to limit another regional pilot group’s flying. Fortunately for the Eagle MEC, Chautauqua’s pilots belong to the Teamsters, not ALPA, thus avoiding a potentially awkward turf war between pilot groups represented by the same union. Of course, the post-September 11 environment in the airline industry has served to exacerbate tensions, as 304 furloughed American Eagle pilots and 125 discharged Chautauqua pilots await word on a recall or look for new jobs.

Meanwhile, American has asserted its force majeure rights as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks to void its regional jet agreement with St. Louis-based Trans States Airlines, which along with Chautauqua and Nashville-based Corporate Airlines began flying as American Connection on December 2. Trans States in June had signed a memorandum of understanding that called for the delivery of 10 ERJ-140s by the end of last year but, according to an American spokesman, the company sought to renegotiate its RJ deal with Trans States as a result of the industry recession since September 11. TSA will continue to fly turboprop connections for American, as will Corporate Airlines, according to the spokesman.

Eagle MEC representative Jim Higgins said  the Eagle pilot group believes that under its contract signed in 1997, American must offer all feed opportunities to its wholly owned subsidiary before it signs American Connection contracts with any independent airline. “It is a major bone of contention for our pilot group,” said Higgins. “We believe that flying belongs to American Eagle.” Specifically, Higgins cited a clause that refers to operational control and another section that requires American Eagle to “aggressively pursue flying opportunities.”  

Since Eagle does not currently operate out of St. Louis, the company would have to establish a new base there in the unlikely event arbitrators rule that Chautauqua and Trans States cannot operate as American Connection. Of course, ALPA will attempt to use the scope provisions in its contract as leverage in its scheduled negotiations for better pay and work rules.

According to Higgins, American has not met its contractual obligation to raise Eagle pilot pay to 7 percent above industry standard. In 1997 American Eagle’s pilots agreed to a series of four consecutive four-year contracts, over which they won guaranteed annual raises based on an index formula tied to average industry rates. Under the deal, the pilots may not strike and the company may not lock out pilots for 16 years. However, the contract calls for a renewal period every four years, when the sides must resolve any grievances under binding arbitration.

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t sit down with management to work out a solution that’s helpful to both groups,” said Higgins. “But that flying belongs to us contractually. The thing that’s particularly disturbing is the fact that the only distinguishable difference between [Chautauqua’s ERJ-140s] and our aircraft is where you see American Eagle on ours, theirs says Connection. Everything else is painted the same, the passengers will perceive them as the same, and that’s just not what our contract envisioned. Once we allow any carrier to do flying that we believe belongs to us, it can cause a problem later on. What’s to keep a Trans States or a Chautauqua from showing up at one of our other hubs?”

“AMR has been a master in years past at whipsawing, basically taking different employee groups from different companies and working them against each other for the cheapest price,” added Higgins. “In our mind this is what we’re guarding against here, because pretty soon you can cause both carriers through competition to draw concessions from their workforces.”  

During the October 29 rollout ceremony for the Embraer 170 in São José dos Campos, Brazil, Chautauqua CEO Bryan Bedford expressed little more than a passing acknowledgment of ALPA’s protestations, stressing that his airline’s contracts with American and Embraer remain binding regardless of any labor discord at American Eagle. “Since September 11 everyone’s been stepping on each others’ toes,” said Bedford. “We’ve got a firm contract.”

After all, Bedford has more pressing concerns, such as the dire financial condition of code-share partners America West and US Airways and a lawsuit recently filed against Chautauqua on behalf of 125 pilots and 51 flight attendants by the Teamsters. According to the Teamsters, the airline illegally bypassed a contractually required furlough process when it laid off the pilots and flight attendants after September 11 as part of a 25-percent cut in turboprop capacity. The Teamsters suit alleges that Chautauqua also failed to offer voluntary layoffs before proceeding with the cuts and that it reduced the work week of some employees from 40 to 32 hr without negotiating the terms of the action with the union.

On December 2 Chautauqua opened new service as American Connection from its base in St. Louis to Sioux Falls, S.D., and Omaha, Neb., with a pair of ERJ-140s, while another pair of the 44-seat jets helped fill a requirement for more feed to Lincoln, Neb. Now hosting nine daily round trips from St. Louis, Lincoln has fast become one of Chautauqua’s busiest destinations. Other cities on Chautauqua’s American Connection network include Shreveport, La.; Memphis and Knoxville, Tenn.; Lexington and Louisville, Ky.; Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio; Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Ind.; Omaha, Neb.; and Toronto.

Chautauqua expected to take delivery of six of the 44-seat jets last month, then another nine during the first half of this year. As each new ERJ-140 arrives in St. Louis, Chautauqua plans to move one of its St. Louis-based 50-seat ERJ-145s to its Columbus base, where it flies under a code-share agreement with America West. Under current delivery plans, Chautauqua plans to add nine ERJ-145s to the three it already maintains in Columbus as America West Express.

Because American Airlines’ pilot scope clause limits the airline’s regional affiliates to 67 regional jets certified to hold 45 seats or more, Chautauqua must gradually remove all its 50-seat jets from its former TWA Express operation and replace them with ERJ-140s. That, in turn, will allow American Eagle finally to begin accepting delivery of the 70-seat Bombardier CRJ700s ordered before American’s absorption of TWA.