American Sues Its Mechanics Again, This Time Seeking Damages

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Didn’t read the article. Don’t care. The prospect of hostile relationship between AA and Union is enough for me to 100% book away from AA.

    Frame of reference. I travel for business. 150-180 segments each of last 5 years. I book all my own travel. No Concur / travel portal nonsense. I book direct with the carrier.

    Both sides — AA & union(s) — are driving business away. And they are both idiots for having let it get this far.

    But hand me the popcorn, this will be fun to watch.

  2. Flashback 20 years to the Pilots’ job action during the Reno Air acquisition. AA leadership held the court judgement in their back pocket until it was a handy negotiating chip.
    Aside from all that, I say again, when the merger was announced, so many analysts and industry observers predicted the end of labor problems. I was laughing then and laughing now.

  3. This debacle reminds me of the war between Eastern Airlines and its mechanics union three decades ago. That conflict didn’t end well for either party.

  4. A judgement for damages against the union is a big win for AA and will be helpful to AA in negotiations but it is unclear how much. Members may or may not be required to pay all or part of it through a potential dues increase or assessment. To the extent members must pay, the impact on individuals may not amount to much compared to what is at stake for them in the negotiations.

    AA wants a favorable tentative contract settlement and ratification by the members. Now, the union needs to eliminate the judgement in addition to pursuing its other bargaining objectives. Will the union back off on some demands it had intended to insist on? If it does, will members ratify a contract the union recommends? The judgement highlights one of the inherent conflicts of interest between unions and those they represent.

  5. I had a 2 hour delay for AA mechanicals last Friday – it wrecked my plans.
    I will not book another AA ticket until this is resolved.
    Binding arbitration could be a solution – both sides currently get no sympathy from me though and are both failing from a customer perspective.

  6. @Gary In the article you mention the mechanics. Would the other fleet service workers in the same union also be liable for fines or increased union dues (assessments)?

  7. As Gary is wont to do, he has twisted the facts here to support some sort of agenda. Reality check: because of Judge McBryde’s previous orders in this case, AA’s operations are already “back to normal.” Anyone can look at the publicly available data and confirm this. For instance go to flightaware and search for live/cancelled. Scroll back a couple days if you want to. With the exception of Delta (which consistently runs a really, really good operation), there is no airline in America right now that is materially more reliable than AA. They run a 100% completion factor on normal weather days, and have no more cancellations in bad weather than other carriers. This has now been true for several weeks. None of this was true, of course, before the Judge ended the illegal mechanics slowdown.

    There are other pundits out there who also say CEO Parker “made a mistake” by unilaterally deciding to pay his mechanics higher wages without forcing them to agree to a new contract. Human nature being what it is, you can certainly argue that. There’s the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. And, indeed, the union seems to have interpreted Parker’s move as some sign of weakness. But given AA’s remarkably successful legal strategy in this case, I presume they have now changed their minds. Parker has clearly shown that he will pay his employees good wages, but trust is a two-way street. In contrast, the union leadership has shown its members that they need new union leadership.

    There will certainly be other “interesting” developments in this case for those of you who are fascinated by airline labor relations. For regular AA customers, I think the only important story here is that the airplanes will now be running on time — or at least as on time as they were before this labor kerfuffle began in spring.

  8. Agree that Parker has made a mess of this, but also see the union is now in a corner. If AA wins the lawsuit, a new contract will be signed within a few months and AA can move on. Once again this show the ignorance of union leadership.

  9. I do not get the not so subtle pro-union tone of this. AA is fighting for its survival. The union has set out with a strategy to hurt the airline badly and so get what it wants in negotiations by this oldest of games. The hell with everyone else like us the passengers who have to suffer as the result.. That calls for AA to respond with all the tools in its arsenal. If there are damages due for intentionally interfering in AA’s operations by this ruse, too bad for the union.

  10. Jeff R, Gary is so pro company, anti union it’s not even funny!!
    Gary, you do know that AA implemented DFW 900 in June and DID NOT hire anybody for the ramp?? The hired gate agents, pilots, and flight attendants but did not hire any additional heads for the ramp even though they acquired 6 gates from Envoy in Terminal B!! How do they expect to run an operation with no additional help??Also AA implemented a new baggage transfer program that has failed miserably even after being told it wouldn’t work at DFW as the “hub” is too big!! I’m sure AA WON’T tell you the bag mishandlings for June and July but it’s staggering!!

  11. I will certainly agree with Jeff R on this point:

    “The hell with everyone else like us the passengers who have to suffer as the result..”

    At the end of the day, I have to imagine that American’s management wants us passengers to safely get where we’re going when we’re expected to get there. And I can’t honestly say that about the TWU — who caused me all kinds of headaches (and money) this summer with their disruptions. So who exactly would they expect me to side with?

    If they want to be successful in these kinds of battles, they would be wise to garner some public sympathy. And taking actions that cause millions of peoples’ lives to be unnecessarily disrupted is not a good way to do that. That’s an old-school strongarm tactic that is designed to get other people to “cry uncle”. And, well, there’s a reason that it’s “old school” — if it ever worked in the past, it’s unlikely to in today’s world.

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