Mechanics Brought Down American Airlines Five Years Ago. They’re Readying For Battle Again.

The American Airlines operation melted down in 2019 as it negotiated a contract with its mechanics. The mechanics union proved that they can take down an airline nearly as well as angry pilots can. They finally got a contract agreement just before the pandemic and ratified it in March 2020.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s almost time for American to start negotiating with its mechanics again. American hasn’t gotten a contract done with flight attendants yet – and the last year of that deal was 2019.

Last time was brutal, and this time could be as well. During negotiations,

  • The head of the union warned now-CEO Robert Isom that the situation would “erupt[..] into the bloodiest ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw that’s what’s gonna happen” and suggested that “if we ever get to the point where there’s self-help we are gonna engage in absolutely vicious strike action against American Airlines the likes of which you’ve never seen.”

  • They never reached a strike, but mechanics brought down the airline’s operation through illegal job actions. A mechanic was even charged with sabotaging an aircraft about to depart. Passenger bags were being opened to spread union messaging.

The mechanics union is going through training to prepare for the next round of negotiations. The negotiating committee just spent a week in training at their union’s national headquarters.

We’re four years into a five year deal, and the union needs to notify American six months prior to expiration that they want to negotiate a new deal. We’re just six months from the starting gun.

  • There’s been significant inflation since the last contract was ratified in March 2020.

  • US Airways legacy mechanics got to keep their more generous health plan for the duration of the contract, with the expectation that it would be folded into what’s offered to the rest of the airline after. They may push back on this.

  • American will want the ability to outsource maintenance work, while offering job protections to existing mechanics. American does less maintenance outsourcing than other airlines. JetBlue outsources around three quarters of its maintenance. Southwest outsources half. American outsources just one-third.

Ultimately job protections may be the biggest issue. Over time there’s likely to be less maintenance to do in the industry overall.

  • Newer aircraft have longer heavy check intervals, meaning less maintenance work. Composite materials in the latest generation of planes mean less work too (no metal airframe corrosion). The same is true resulting from more electronic components replacing mechanical parts. That’s materials replacing labor.

  • Engine maintenance, which is materials-heavy, is driven at many airlines by the manufacturer (‘power by the hour’ agreements). Many carriers only do line maintenance at their hubs. On the whole smaller airlines outsource maintenance, and many that lease all their planes lack significant maintenance capabilities entirely.

  • Inspections can be increasingly done by computers, replacing error-prone people. People have to supervise machines, but the number of people and type of work changes.

  • Maintenance is offshored successfully. After all, planes can literally fly to wherever they need the work done. Lufthansa does work in Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

Delta has a model of providing good jobs for its mechanics over the long term because they’re doing high value maintenance in-house, and growing that portion of the business turning maintenance into a profit center by doing work for other airlines. Meanwhile they outsource lower value work.

Without a vision for higher value work to be insourced from other airlines, there’s just not going to be as much high value work to do and legacy airline mechanics are too expensive for the lower value work. These broad trends almost ensure conflict between American Airlines and its mechanics union once negotiations begin in earnest.

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. Please stick to writing about things you know.
    As a 35 year airline mechanic, computers ARE NOT doing inspections and it is proven that quality workmanship is better when done in-house. Just ask Boeing. Try writing something positive about American Airlines for a change.

  2. In other news, an AA 737-800 had a complete brake failure on landing; inspection showed it was reassembled incorrectly during a brake overhaul 4 days prior.

    And, given that airline labor agreements are often finally only settled years after the contract becomes amendable, I don’t think there is any reason for fear with AA’s mechanics any time soon.

  3. I remember back when these labor actions were going on and it was pretty awful. They should ban unions. Businesses have a hard enough time.

  4. “brought down” is a suspect choice of words for a conflict between mechanics and an airline.

  5. Schadenfreude is such a “noble” being sarcastic) human emotion. It’s one I find hard to understand.

  6. For those who don’t want to look up “schadenfreude”, it’s deriving pleasure from other people’s troubles.

  7. Maybe these mechanics should worry more about getting replaced since they can’t seem to keep doors from breaking off or wheels from falling down…

  8. It’s a shame that such adversarial tensions exist within the same company. I suppose these internal dramas are why AA has such a hard time prioritizing their customers.

  9. If you don’t know anything about mechanics the stfu. My dad was a mechanic for 37 years for aa and was underpaid for much or his tenure. They put their license on the line everyday so people can fly safely then some cuck writes an article about maintenance being the issue. Get bent dude

  10. The FAA has just announced that it is launching a review of United operations, not American’s, because of the high rate of incidents at United in the past several weeks.

  11. Whoever is the president of the mechanic’s union is, he’s a blithering idiot. Don’t get me wrong, Isom is an inept idiot but he doesn’t go around making threats against people who are supposedly on the same team. I’m generally pro-union but morons like that Samuelsen character are ridiculously counterproductive. What possible good can come from antagonizing someone that you will be forced to negotiate with in the near future? It’s like that Charlie Bryan idiot from the IAM who sank Eastern Airlines out of spite.

  12. Gary, stop smoking whatever you are smoking. Computers can not do walk around inspections and gvi/dvi’s . Quit talking about a job that you know nothing about. Stick to the b.s. you know. I am a 35 year airline mechanic.

  13. I am all for union workers getting fair compensation and benefits, but when they resort to sabotage, it is time to get rid of the unions. Organized crime thug mentality cannot be tolerated in the airline industry.

  14. @ctleng76 your comment is a fine example of making comments out of ignorance, it wasn’t sabotage and it had nothing to do with contract negotiations. Please educate yourself on a subject before spreading rumors.

  15. Gary: computers do not preform inspections and there are other things to look for on an airframe other than corrosion.

    Tim: one brake failing isn’t a catastrophe, although it shouldn’t happen, and if you must know the brakes aren’t overhauled by A and P mechanics at AA, but by unlicensed shop personnel with the laughable title of Overhaul Support Mechanics.

  16. If mechanics brought down the airline, why did the company withdraw its injunction when the top executives were told by their hand-picked judge to fork over their cell phone communications? AA made it all up. And when they needed to prove their allegations they said “nevermind.” Think about how much longer negotiations went on after the injuction was withdrawn. That labor leader sized up Isom and knew he was dealing with a fraud.
    Nice try blaming workers Leff. Try again.

  17. Maybe later he will watch reruns of the Jetsons and write about how flying cars will take down the airline industry. I have been a firefighter for 32 years. I have sat on both sides of the labor management negotiation table. Unions are not bad and neither is management. Both of those entities do suffer from bad people in leadership from time to time. Both sides are just protecting their own interests.

  18. @Rick, I actually did educate myself before making that comment. An American Airlines employee actually admitted to sabotaging a plane for the purpose of delaying its departure, because he was angry about the contract situation and how it would.impact him financially. Of course I only have news articles to go by, and we all know how those can be slanted. But I did do my research first. If unions were told the truth by their leadership instead of propaganda, then maybe their members wouldn’t be seeing these disputes as a call to war. I have seen too many examples of companies that shut their doors permanently due to a strike. Those leaders are only successful at screwing their members out of a career. Not every company is being greedy. It needs to be a true negotiation, not a war.

  19. If you don’t like the employer, find another job. Unions are the bane of most companies. Unions extort the workers to keep themselves in business. Workers extort the company with threats of strikes, etc. The “sweat shops” of yesteryear are gone. Why stay with a company that doesn’t pay well, or the benefits are not what the employee wants? Leave…get a job with another company with better pay and/or benefits. AMT jobs are in demand. Unions do not speak for their members….they speak for their own bank account. Every time the contract(s) become amenable, the company has to figure out how to satisfy the varied unions within the company. My god, that costs a fortune. If a bathroom stall is low on toilet paper, one can’t just go to a closet and get another roll. No… must call a member of the “toilet paper roll international union” to do the task. Look at what unions have done to the EU and other countries. YIKES

  20. Gary, are you a aircraft mechanic? Have you ever been? Well, I am. Have been for almost 36 years. Computers DO NOT and CAN NOT perform inspections. They do help us with diagnosing problems but, it is impossible for them to do the tasks you ascribe to them. Please refrain from commenting on a subject you have no personal knowledge of. We (A and Ps) don’t tell you how to write click bait titles and uninformed articles.

  21. @ctleng76 you couldn’t be more correct about the slanting of the media, as that’s how this country has arrived at it’s current state of affairs. That conversation is for another day. I suppose the use of the word sabotage is correct, the reason is incorrect. He knew the plane would never leave and no one would be harmed. The man made made an ill-fated decision to delay the trip and create overtime for himself, as the company had cut out overtime. Unfortunately he chose to budget his life to include said overtime. All that being said, I don’t condone what he did at all. Let’s just say, I have first hand knowledge of the incident and am an Aircraft Maintenance Technician myself. The incident had nothing to do with Union contract negotiations.

  22. @Rick “He knew…no one would be harmed.” You know if you watch Mayday enough you get de javu from that sentiment.

    The truth is he didn’t know for sure, he “assumed* no one would be harmed. There’s a difference. The same difference that brought down many planes from the sky because those in charge assumed there’s no harm doing XYZ. Maybe 99.9% of the time they’re right. That 0.1% is going to kill hundreds of people.

    He is taking a chance on safety and human lives to bump his paycheck.

    Those like-minded folks should be jailed. And equally, airlines should pay the rest at a level that reflects how critical their job is.

    No one’s hand was clean.

  23. W. – Your dad might have been an airline mechanic for 37 years, but I can assure you he was not underpaid. He was paid a market wage, which is why he stuck around for 37 years. Had that not been the case he would have easily found other, higher paid, employment.

  24. @Ryan Smith – the problem is you’re fixated on what you’ve done for 36 years that you cannot see what’s coming. Fortunately it won’t displace you during your career.

  25. @Steve Baldric – a job action began in mid-2018 and sped up through summer. There’s absolutely no question, and this doesn’t come from the company it comes from mechanics themselves, that this was happening. The maintenance problems that came to a head in summer 2019 and were suddenly solved were not happenstance.

  26. @MZ Yes, the plane would not have left the gate until the problem he created was corrected, which is exactly what happened. Stick to commenting about what your knowledgeable about. Just because you watched some disaster tv program, doesn’t make you an expert. Don’t get me wrong, what he did was extremely wrong, but no one was getting hurt that day. This whole article is complete BS to start with. What we do for a living deserves high wages as we keep even the click baiters safe in the air. Any time you’d like to discuss the inner workings of a 777, 787, 737NG, 737 MAX, Airbus 320, 321, 321 NEO , all of which I need to be proficient at on a daily basis, let me know.

  27. If someone commits an offense, such as sabotaging a piece of equipment, that person and that person alone should be punished. Don’t blame the union for something someone else decided to do. Companies despise employee unions even though they’re most likely in a union themselves. They may call it a trade association or some other name but it’s a union! It exists to represent the interests of the member companies. The dry cleaners I go to proudly displays the plaque for their membership in the National Association of Independent Businesses…a union. Companies understand the power of unity and thus strive to keep their employees from having a piece of the power. Is there room to make things better…you betcha. But dismissing the idea of organized labor is not the way

  28. @Rick So tell me, when those Boeing planes with faulty door plugs or software went into service, did people think they would fail?

  29. I find your predictions of the replacement of A&P licensed AMT’s by computers to show a complete ignorance of what our job entails.
    While the latest generation of commercial AC systems have certainly become more automated, that added complexity has only increased the workload on the AMT”s. Throw in all the complex and sophisticated cabin accommodations that todays passengers demand (lay flat seats, IFE and WIFI ) on top of the rapidly aging out of a highly experienced workforce and the real problem all the airlines are facing is coming up with enough new AMT’s and getting them up to speed in time.
    The working conditions, schedules and starting compensation are not especially attractive to the current generation entering the workforce.
    As far as composite structures requiring less maintenance due to lack of corrosion? While that maybe true they can suffer considerably more damage during a lightning strike that can take them out of service for an extended time for repair.

  30. Funny thing is the AMTs at AA weren’t in on the alleged job action in 2019. We watched management wait till the last minute to release the aircrcraft logbooks in an effort to make it look like AMTs were slacking off. No argument about the union leadership being stupid. The only alleged sabotage effort I heard about was in MIA and that person was attempting to create overtime for himself. Had nothing to do with a contract job action. AA AMTs have historically had the worst contracts in the industry among the majors. The company cannot attract new talent when all they have to offer is less pay and benefits than their counterparts in the industry. In a nutshell, our contract has already been negotiated for us by UAL & Alaska- whose recent contracts will put them over $5.00 per hour more than AAs AMTs by years end. As far as contracting out aircraft maintenance to 3rd party vendors, good luck – they can’t find capable help either. I have spoken to the hiring managers and the union EAP rep and, finding folks that can pass a background check and random drug tests is a challenge as well.

  31. You are one of the most arrogant aviation “columnists” in existence. You’re damn right I’m fixated on my profession, it keeps your a@# alive when you travel by air. You are touted by your publication as the foremost expert on points and miles, why don’t you stick to that instead of a subject you are clearly clueless about. Automation is coming, I accept this, so do many others in this profession, but it CAN NOT completely replace the human being in safety critical positions. Do you truly want to fly on a pilotless plane inspected by a robot?

  32. We won’t tell you or your loyal fans how to accumulate points and miles, of you’ll quit telling us how aircraft are/will be maintained. It’s very arrogant of you and quite infuriating to be told by you, a lay person “av geek”, all of the inner workings of the airline business. If you were to ever be under the knife for neurosurgery for example, would you want myself or any aircraft mechanic to be advising the surgeon? I doubt it. I know I wouldn’t, it’s NOT OUR AREA OF EXPERTISE!

  33. The problem with outsourcing jobs isn’t to “save” jobs. What most people neglect to mention is outsourced work mostly goes to Repair Stations. The mechanics at these repair stations are mostly people off the street with no prior aviation experience. Yes, they are still regulated but the question still must be asked, “who do you trust your aircraft maintenance with? A certified A&P or someone that was hired to keep cost down and profit margins high?” This is why we must keep more maintenance in the US and in-house.

  34. Just as the flight deck crew can and has overcome the computer controls and saved their lives and the lives of their passengers and cabin crew, AMT’s will not be replaced by computers. We humans have the ability to think beyond the program. That’s called airmanship and all of the humans, from tampers to Amt’s to gate agents., cabin crew and pilots have it.

  35. Unfortunately for the workers, their Unions have become organized crime syndicates who care more about union dues growing and getting re-elected than they do in growing a successful business TOGETHER with the company. AA needs to throw away the FA’s and thier Union and start from scratch. This will send a message to the other Unions that AA will be fair and offer higher industry norm contracts, but will not be extorted.

  36. As of now AA tech pay is lower than UAL, DL, SWA and UPS/FedEx. If AA wants decent technicians they will have to be competitive with wages. Also, the “computers” decreasing maintenance workload will require less hiring going forward but won’t decrease anything… if you compare man hours required to maintain an old 747 vs a new 787 you can see the difference BUT you still need mechanics to maintain a 787… nobody can outsource the high frequency types of maintenance performed routinely… nobody is doing that.

  37. When you consider the knowledge and basic training requirements for a mechanic simply to become an apprentice, there is absolutely no reason seasoned mechanics shouldn’t be making at least $100 an hour. No mechanic may return an aircraft or appliance to service without having passed the 200+ question written exams and having sat for an oral and practical exam that can last an entire day. That merely qualifies him as a rank beginner.
    The airlines, up until recently, haven’t hired any of these youngsters due to the cost of additional training and the need to keep their product moving. People coming out of the military are also considered underqualified due to the cultural and mission needs of military aircraft and maintenance and the high level of specialization, due to lack of training and experience time, of their mechanics.
    It takes at least five years of hands-on time for a full time mechanic to become considered competent and perhaps even a journeyman; all while making somewhere around $25 to $40 hourly. Compare that to IT and other “clean handed, bankers’ hours” jobs.
    The fact is that until that until a mechanic hits the ten-year mark, kicking planes off the gate and out of the hangar, he or she is still considered inexperienced by the older heads in the group.
    Pilots, on the other hand, having attained their magical 1500 hours may get a right seat job with an airline, at considerably higher wages and, even as a “beginner” may be making on the order of twice what a seasoned mechanic makes.
    Hence: mechanics seek other revenue streams to attain the “American dream” as well as earn a bit more respect. (Not to mention seeing their families when they’re awake and on weekends.)
    Unless and until mechanics organize with leadership not tied to political or airline interests they’ll make junk wages. Unless and until airfares rise to a level that will support those mechanics the airlines will fail in retaining those seasoned mechanics they need to keep their safety levels and in-service rates at a level that will assure sustainability.
    It’s reality check time kids.
    Just one old mechanic’s opinion, mind you.

  38. As a fellow AMT, with over 35 years experience, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you have said. I’d like to add that people, when praising the skill of pilots say, “They deserve that level of pay, they have 200 lives in their hands. “, I’d like them to remember that the AMT who certified that aircraft’s airworthiness, has 202 lives in his/her hands, while earning a fraction of what their pilots make.

  39. As a retired A & P mechanic, I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. Aircraft are more reliable but are more complicated to work on. When I started at Braniff airlines and then moved on to US Airway, we had seasoned mechanics to teach us the systems and procedures. Not true now.
    The company’s focus on profitability continues to use outsourcing as a path to more profits. The company has limited control on the quality of outsourced workers, especially those out of country. This is the sole reason that bitter negotiations between the company and the union continue every contract. American Airlines profits are in first class, business, economy and coach, not in outsourcing maintenance previously done in house.

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