The frustrating relationship between American Airlines and its mechanics and fleet service workers has continued through the long hot summer. American went to court and got a temporary restraining order against what it argued was an illegal job action by mechanics — a concerted effort to delay flights and take aircraft out of service, a refusal to work overtime causing the airline’s operation to suffer.
The airline drew the most favorable judge possible and their statistical evidence about blanket refusals of overtime in Philadelphia, among other metrics, was enough to get them a permanent injunction and order the union to assist in convincing mechanics not just to work but to work at the productivity levels of the past even if they were individually burned out from the fraying relationship with the airline.
After a brief respite where the airline’s on-time performance improved during the back half of July, they backslided last week failing to meet their internal goals and falling behind both United and Delta for departures exactly on time (D0). And their subpar performance was inflated by a strong performance from their regional flying, unaffected by poor employee morale.
American does call out the strong performance at New York JFK – as they have earlier this summer – but I attribute that to the ghost town operation, scaled back further over the summer when they’re not required to squat on slots and operate flights they don’t want to as a result of runway construction.
Now American has gone back to court against its employees seeking to have mechanics held liable for the airline’s losses for delays and cancellations attributable to work slowdowns after the temporary injunction was put into place June 14. The union, for its part, says they’ve complied.
It could result in millions of dollars in fines if a U.S. District Court judge decides to hold in contempt of court the 30,000 members of the Transport Workers Union and International Association of Machinists at American Airlines.
American Airlines is asking for unspecified damages to be determined at a future court hearing.
This is hardball, and it’s ultimately a negotiating tactic. If American can get a court to order damages, so that the union owes it money, they’ll finally have a bargaining chip to help push their mechanics into a contract. The narrative goes something like this,
- Behind door #1 is a big debt to the airline, so you can pay us through your union dues.
- Behind door #2 is a contract that costs the airline more than the contracts at United or Delta. And if you sign it we’ll forgive the debt.
The airline made a strategic blunder in giving its workers a pay raise without getting a new contract in return. Now, with a smaller difference in pay than there otherwise would have been from signing a new contract, there hasn’t been enough money on the table to get workers to agree on the differences they have with each other and make concessions the company wants on ‘scope’ (letting non-union American Airlines employees in Brazil do more work on planes that sit on the ground during the day, for instance).
The raise on offer combined with the debt they’re forgiving could get everyone closer – at least that’s the argument. Continuing to sue and threaten employees, though, could do lasting damage to the airline’s efforts to make culture a competitive advantage.
Airline CEO Doug Parker says he wears a wrist band “that says CECFTM, which is a terrible acronym because it doesn’t say anything, but it stands for Create an Environment that Cares for our Frontline Team Members. That’s what our mission is. Every day one of our officers sends a note to other officers about what they did that day to create an environment that cares for frontline team members.”
On Tuesday what they did is sue their employees again. And in fairness to the union, while I’ve been writing about a campaign by the mechanics to disrupt the airline’s operation for a year they’re not wholly at fault for this summer’s poor operational performance.
The fleet is already stretched thin by the grounding of the 737 MAX. The lack of a mechanics contract has made it more difficult to work on planes as they send legacy US Airways aircraft to legacy American stations. They’ve built up substantial deferred maintenance that the current operation can’t absorb. And they haven’t done a great job deploying parts where they’re needed.