Survey probes attitudes among airline aviators

 - July 30, 2008, 9:48 AM

Ask an airline executive to rank the most frustrating aspects of his job, and labor relations will more often than not top the list, particularly at a time of massive layoffs and salary reductions. Of course, some airlines experience more success than others in maintaining relatively positive relationships with their employees. Those that do typically find a way to communicate in a constructive way, leaving management with a generally accurate sense of the prevailing sentiment of its rank-and-file and workers with a more accurate assessment of management objectives.

Unfortunately for most airlines, constructive communication often takes a back seat to vitriolic rhetoric during formal contract negotiations. The all-too-common scenario often leaves management “disconnected” from their employee groups, creating an environment in which the level of trust on both sides of the management-worker divide erodes beyond repair.

While few would argue that economic conditions precipitated the predicament in which the entire industry finds itself today, management and the unions tend to blame each other for the airlines’ inability to react quickly enough to changes in the competitive environment. But how do pilots, for example, view their own culpability, vis-a-vis their support for scope clauses? George Washington University’s Aviation Institute endeavored to find out by surveying a group of mainline pilots about labor-management relationships, the cause of today’s financial troubles and the growth of regional jet service in domestic networks.

Although the survey showed a wide disparity of opinion about the catalysts for the airlines’ financial problems, most placed significantly more blame on management than pilots, particularly at America West and United Airlines. Pilots at American and US Airways blamed labor and management equally, while Continental’s pilots placed more blame on specific labor actions than management. At all the airlines, however, the pilots listed the economy as an equal or greater factor than any specific actions by either labor or management.

The online survey of 125 mainline pilots, conducted in April, found a distinct difference between perceptions about the role of regional jets in the U.S. and actual deployment trends. Fifty-eight percent chose “replacing mainline service” as their top estimate, even though recent schedule analyses showed that just 11 percent of all new RJs placed into service directly replace mainline routes. Eighty-three percent of the pilots supported the concept of preserving mainline seniority numbers for furloughed pilots who accept positions at a regional carrier under so-called “jets for jobs” programs, while 66 percent supported the full integration of mainline and affiliate seniority lists.

On the effect of regional jet proliferation on mainline job security, only 36 percent of the pilots viewed the trend as a positive development, while 61 percent saw a negative correlation between RJ growth and mainline job security. The sentiment appeared strongest at America West, where 79 percent of the respondents indicated that RJ proliferation at Mesa Air Group threatened their job security. Overall, the pilots viewed scope clauses as the favored remedy; most of the respondents agreed that such restrictions should freeze RJ service at the current levels.

“I think the most interesting finding was that pilots really didn’t have a sense of what RJs were doing in terms of deployment,” said Doug Abbey, president of Washington-based AvStat Associates and partner in industry advocacy group Regional Air Service Initiative (RASI). “There really was an emotional conclusion that RJs were replacing mainline flying when that was not the case.”

Despite management’s consistent assertions that the cost structures of mainline operations generally preclude the use of regional jets at major airlines, most pilots surveyed said they thought that mainline crews could profitably fly the larger regional jets now entering the market at mainline payscales. Asked to assess the minimum aircraft capacity major airlines could profitably fly, 43 percent said 50- to 70-seat jets, while another 36 percent said 71- to 100-seat types. At the two extremes, Delta Air Lines pilots drew the line at 52 seats, while JetBlue pilots said the mainline must fly airplanes carrying 110 seats to remain profitable.

As expected, sentiments regarding what should constitute the maximum capacity airplane at the respondents’ respective regional affiliates correlated closely with their opinions about mainline profitability, although sentiments varied depending on whether the RJ seat caps accompanied a limit on the number of mainline airplanes. Pilots appeared to tolerate larger regional aircraft if no limits on mainline fleet size existed. However, at American, Continental, America West and Northwest, the mainline cap issue proved irrelevant. Conversely, although Delta pilots would tolerate 75-seat regional jets at the affiliated regional if no limits on mainline fleet size existed, they lowered their RJ capacity tolerance to 41 seats if, in fact, mainline growth were to stagnate at a given level.  

“The major airlines, with the possible exception of Delta, have not done a very good job of explaining how RJs contribute to overall mainline profitability,” said Abbey. “Of course, more recent misperceptions about a lot of things have further fed the overall distrust of RJ flying. There are some remedies out there, and I think US Airways was a good example of how to sell the whole concept. Like it or not, we are moving into the 70-seat market, and I think Iraq II did more to make that possible than almost anything the industry could have done.”