Some American Airlines Pilots Organizing Illegal Job Action To Hurt The Company

In 2012 American Airlines pilots decided that CEO Tom Horton had to go, and that played a part in why US Airways was able to take over the airline while inside of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

They even engaged in a sick out but with a ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ rather than putting it in writing. They’d learned their lesson thirteen years prior.

In 1999 when American acquired Reno Air, pilots engaged in a job action. It’s illegal to do this without being released from negotiations by a federal mediator under the Railway Labor Act. American went to court and got an injunction, but it continued, and then the airline obtained a judgment against the pilots union for over $40 million — representing the airline’s losses due to the sickout from the time the injunction was issued until the sick out ended.

The judgment was upheld by a federal appeals court, the union appealed to the Supreme Court which declined to hear the case. The judgment was for an amount greater than the assets of the union. Ultimately American forgave an unpaid $26 million of the judgment as part of its 2003 pilots’ contract.

Now it seems that American’s pilots are back it, forcing the union to do damage control:

APA leadership reiterated today that a recent text message purportedly sent on behalf of the Negotiating Committee was not a sanctioned APA communication and should be disregarded.

As we continue our efforts to reach a new agreement with management, there may be some pilots who believe they can strengthen our position at the table by engaging in unsanctioned behavior to affect the airline’s operation. That is not the case. Not only can such unsanctioned behavior disrupt our efforts at the bargaining table, it also places our pilots and APA in legal jeopardy.

Now is not the time for rogue actors to be attempting to create a situation that will be counterproductive to our collective efforts to achieve a new contract, and your APA leadership does not encourage or condone such behavior.

In summer 2019 mechanics engaged in an illegal job action and obliterated the carrier’s reliability. Pilots have even greater power to disrupt an operation. They can call in sick in large numbers. They can come up with reasons not to fly, or slow down their flying. Some things they can do:

  • Calling for maintenance to check out items of ‘concern’ that aren’t in fact problems
  • Refusing aircraft with minor maintenance issues
  • Not working overtime
  • Not answering the phone when the airline calls to come in on an unscheduled day
  • Taxiing slowly, taking up as much time as possible

Together with a pilot shortage, this gives pilots tremendous leverage. However they cannot put in writing anything they’re doing to undermine the airline to pressure them into contract concessions.

The pilot union has taken a strike authorization vote, but isn’t legally permitted to strike because they haven’t received federal permission to do so (and that would only come after a 30 day ‘cooling off period’). Pilots are getting frustrated over the time it is taking to get to a contract, though the airline has publicly committed to substantial raises.

Some pilots do not want to wait, and are suggesting taking matters into their own hands. The mistake they’re making, though, is putting this in writing – and the union, therefore, has taken steps to disavow it.

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. if it’s in writing, one would think you could link to what has been said. EVERYTHING, after all, ends up on the internet.

  2. This seems like more than just “some” pilots organizing an illegal job action. According to the union the text came from pilots involved in the negotiations! It may not have been communications through the union’s ‘communications’ shop (Dennis Tajer) but it’s from leaders. Ill-advised, of course.

  3. These rogue pilots also make life harder for their fellow crews – both cabin and flight deck on other flights impacted by their actions

  4. When their union-approved shuttle bus failed to show up on April 7th, the Pilots refused to accept alternate transportation from their hotel in Manhattan to JFK airport to operate AA flight 2652 departing JFK-SFO at 6pm. They didn’t intimate AA operations, who apparently were under the impression that the pilots were en route – in fact, the flight attendants even informed passengers who had already boarded, that the pilots were going through security and will be on board soon – LMAO. Eventually everyone deplaned and some were able to get onto AA’s last flight to SFO departing at 9:30pm, while the rest were put up in a nearby hotel. The flight was rescheduled to depart the next morning, apparently with a whole new flight crew. Some would say that’s Illegal Job Action, but the Pilot’s Union would say otherwise!

  5. If this is accurate there is a good chance of someone being disciplined/terminated.

    @Art: “union-approved shuttle bus failed to show up on April 7th, the Pilots refused to accept alternate transportation from their hotel in Manhattan to JFK airport to operate AA flight 2652 departing JFK-SFO at 6pm”
    Again let’s say this is true (I don’t know). If they are operating within the agreement, they won’t have any repercussions. If they are outside of it they will have an issue with the company. AA isn’t about to let pilots (or any other employees) operate outside of their collective bargaining agreement.

  6. I hope they do a sick out and AA goes out of business. The way they treat passengers is disgusting. Their computer algorithm canceled our connection in error. We were left stranded. AA staff simply did not care. They disowned the mistake by claiming it was the “computer’s fault.” They don’t deserve a raise, and they don’t deserve to be in business. Nuff said.

  7. Didn’t we go through this years ago when AA pilots conducted a slow down. A federal judge imposed a severe daily fine on the pilots union for each day of the slow down. Suddenly, flight were back on schedule!!

  8. The RLA is just a great way for an airline to continue dragging their feet in negotiations…the longer it drags out the more $$$ they save. The RLA is really antiquated and should be done away with. The idea of the RLA is that airlines are so necessary to the economic health of the country any work stoppages would create havoc. With the exception of the gift money airlines received during the pandemic, there would be no bailout of an individual company should they have to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy and get liquidated.

  9. U.S. military paid training and certification, no student loans, and U.S. salary in the top 1% seems insufficient to keep these pilots from violating labor laws and their various and sundry civil penalties and criminal liabilities.

    I have my first flight on AA in twenty years, later this week. Maybe I’ll change my tune, afterwards. I doubt it.

  10. So, summer approaching and pilots’ union playing with everyone’s summer vacation. Are you sure their union isn’t the same one as United Teachers of Dade? I was always under the impression that unions worked for the people who pay them/belong to them not against them. But, wow union leaders everywhere are a mess…dragging their feet and playing footsie with the big bosses who don’t want to pay it seems.

  11. “union-approved shuttle bus failed to show up on April 7th, the Pilots refused to accept alternate transportation from their hotel in Manhattan”

    It’s Union approved for a reason. We negotiated for safe and certified transportation to the airport… If the company can’t get us to the airport and says “take an Uber”, we are NOT required to get in some 19 year old’s Honda civic and pray our way to the airport. Why is this on the crew… Shouldn’t the title be “The AIRLINE was unable to provide suitable transportation to get the crew to the airport!”

  12. Sad what these pilots do to their fellow employees …… the agents and airport staff that has to deal with their ignorance. Have them stand behind the counter and handle upset customers ….I’ve been there and many pilots think its all about them.

  13. How long has the pilots union been without a contract (or cost of living increase)? Part of this should be placed on the company. I remember when new contacts were negotiated before the expiration.

  14. The US Air management team that now leads AA, chose to eliminate the internal Hotels and Limo department and outsourced those functions to a third party company, Travelliance, which consistently struggles to provide reliable transportation for flight crews, especially during weather events. Cost cutting at the expense of reliability seems to be a hallmark of the US Air management style. Blaming the frontline employees for consequences of senior management misses the mark. Ask Robert Isom if he wants to run a large LCC like Spirit Airlines or a first class operation like Delta. His call.

  15. I hope Gary Leff was well paid by American Airlines Management for this great puff piece of BS. While he is suggesting what pilots could do, he never said what they were doing or what the message that was put “in writing” said. The headline accusing them of illegal actions is a typical bait headline followed by fake news journalism.

    Even though I left the company several years ago to take over my family winery, I still stay in touch. The text didn’t say anything that would damage the company, it took a video message from the union president one step further. The presidents message highlighted the fact that the management team has taken pay raises and bonuses over the last three years while the pilot contract has been expired. Pilots haven’t had a raise in three years while consumer goods are up 17% and interest rates have doubled.

    The text message in question only asked the pilots to change one metric that only affects the management bonus. I won’t repeat it for you might accuse me next of trying to incite illegal activity. 

    To answer JOJO, the AA CEO gets a seven figure bonus for the pilots leaving the gate on time according to the union video. Pilots aren’t rich nor are they in the top 1% as BigTee said. My last year as a 777 Captain, TurboTax said I was in the 18th percentile. 

    My niece and nephew still fly for American, and they tell me about co pilots in Los Angeles driving for Uber eats so they can pay rent and pay for the loans for pilot school. The military doesn’t print the 2.5 pilots a day that are retiring and flight training can cost as much as medical school. Just like an MD that uses the military to pay for training, the pilots have to serve a period of time as well.

    No pilot got a free pass. Every time you step on a plane you put your life in their hands just like you do when you go in for surgery. I thank all of you that stepped on my airplane for that trust.

    Do you want a pilot that is worried about having electricity at home and hoping for good sleep at the airport holiday inn or do you want a well rested pilot at the top of their game focused on getting you there safely?

  16. Honestly, half of this is greed because pilots would make you believe they don’t make any money. They make a ton. Plus their actions make life harder for other work groups and for that reason I don’t support their actions. It’s all about me

  17. NWA did the same back in the day. Didn’t endear the passengers to them and actually most started to support NWA management. It’s a strategy of failure and union’s haven’t learned that pissing off the people paying their members salary, isn’t a good negotiating tactic.

  18. This is a completely false accusation. Nice “reporting”. In any union/management dispute there will always be the 1% outliers. This does not an illegal job action make. Look at the performance statistics, they don’t lie. You are an unethical “writer” whom doesn’t even bother to fact check the case.

  19. Anti-worker shill Gary with another hyperbolic rant.

    I love the part where Gary- who is not a lawyer- makes pronouncements about what’s legal and what is not. Now THAT is illegal- giving legal advice without a license!

  20. Ya know…years ago, I was taxiing out from PHL when AA was having troubles with negotiations. The pilots staged a slowdown. EVERYTHING was drawn out. They left the APU running even though ground power and air were also running. They taxied with both engines running, the APU running, and at a snail’s pace. That, of course, backed up all of us. Then, as one AA plane took the active, the FO commented, “Whatcha bet that he has a “mechanical” or something and goes back to the gate!” Well, he did! He was directed to the other side of the runway’s taxiway since “one way outbound” traffic clogged the quickest way back to the gate. He was still sitting there…both engines running and the APU as, ten planes later, we took off. AA treats their employees like crap…and they get it back in spades.

  21. @Gary The union doesn’t care what individual pilots do. Just keep it to yourself so it doesn’t look like a coordinated job action. So Gary, what suggestions would you have for the union to do in order to get AA’s management to move in a more expeditious manner to get a contract out there that the membership can vote on? Due to the RLA members have very few tools in their toolbox.
    I do have one thought, perhaps have the CEO’s contract tied to the pilot’s contract and the CEO could only get a bump in compensation (and or bonus) once a new pilot contract was ratified. Without any motivation there’s little desire for management to get a contract settled quickly.

  22. Delta pilot bonus average 55k, AA 3-4K

    There is a huge pay disparity between the majors and AA.

  23. @Steve. Great idea. If AA CEO compensation and bonus is tied to getting a new contract ratified I’ll bet all union employees would have new contracts in place timely.

  24. When United pilots did this around 2001 I switched to American. I’d flown 900k miles on United and have now flown 2.7MM miles that could have been on United. Not too long after the job action United filed for bankrupt. I ran into a retired United pilot later and not knowing his history asked how he was enjoying retirement. Reply was not so well since all the United stock in his retirement plan was worthless.

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