Three Thoughts About American Airlines Taking Their Mechanics to Court Yesterday

American Airlines still hasn’t completed its merger with US Airways. There isn’t a joint contract with its mechanics. Each airline’s mechanics are still represented by their own union, negotiating as part of an alliance.

And each airline’s mechanics have different issues at the bargaining table. For instance legacy US Airways mechanics like their health insurance and want to keep it, but the airline wants to move them to a less generous plan. US Airways mechanics would get a transition payment, but that means signing a contract also means different payments to different employees.

American wants to be able to do more outsourcing. They currently outsource less than competitors United and Delta, having more employees per plane than competitors.

American promises current workers will keep their jobs and pay and work locations – and get raises – but the average age of mechanics is in the mid-50s and American wants to be able to shift work elsewhere over time.

A common refrain from American Airlines management is that they would happily sign either the Delta or United contract today, since they’re offering more than what is in either. The union though doesn’t want to give up future jobs. In a real sense this is a tradeoff between pay for the members they represent today and future union strength and bargaining power.

Negotiations have seemingly gone nowhere. Part of the problem is that American management unilaterally gave employees wages so there’s less additional money on the table now to trade for changes in scope rules and benefits.

In May the head of the Transportation Workers Union declared that the situation may “erupt[..] into the bloodiest ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw that’s what’s gonna happen” and suggests 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.”

Passengers have suffered from increased delays and cancellations due to maintenance issues as tensions have flared. One passenger even reported having their luggage violated.

American got a federal mediator involved last fall. Now it’s gone to court to sue the mechanics unions.

Kyle Arnold covered yesterday’s court hearing on the American Airlines lawsuit against the unions representing its mechanics, arguing that the Transportation Workers Union (legacy American) and the International Association of Machinists (legacy US Airways) have been engaged in an illegal job action meant to slow down the airline. Three items stand out:

  1. Lawyers for the mechanics “argu[ed] an increase in flight delays and maintenance issues pre-dated a breakdown in contract negotiations in February.” Of course, though, because the slowdown began last year. I wrote in August 2018 for instance that “many delays have been caused by unhappy mechanics.” Then in September about “reports that some of American’s recent operational challenges stem from maintenance slow-walking addressing of issues with aircraft.”
  2. If the claim that “American’s case leaned heavily on testimony from senior vice president for integrated operations David Seymour” is true, then American’s chances of prevailing in court may have a high bar. Seymour is the least articulate member of American Airlines senior management.
  3. The union says there’s no work slowdown, and the union isn’t behind any slowdown if there is, but they’re also complying with the court’s previous order and have stopped the coordinated slowdown.

    [Transportation Workers Union Vice President Gary] Peterson said he and other union leaders have gone to great lengths to stop any coordinated work slowdowns.

When American Airlines successfully sued its pilots union 20 years ago over an illegal work-to-rule action, they had paperwork admitting what was happening and proving union involvement. Here the argument is statistical. There’s no question that a work action has taken place. The question is whether the airline can pin it on coordinated involvement by the union.

Nonetheless suing your employees’ representatives isn’t likely to bring down tensions. And harming the business isn’t likely to make more money available for a better contract especially as signs point towards a weakening economy. The mechanics could find themselves too late to get a great deal. Passengers remain caught in the middle. Naturally my own first flight of the day last week required a part American didn’t have in stock

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. @ Gary — The AA mechanics have been the last straw for me. SkyMiles may be horrible, but at least I expect to reach my destination in a timely manner when I fly Delta.

  2. They say the ethos of the western man is to plant a tree in whose shade you will not sit, but your descendants do.

    I applaud these mechanics for trying to ensure a future for those who come later rather than acting like the typical spoiled baby boomer “me me me me me” generation (who are the first in our country’s history to not leave their kids better off than they were) and try to squeeze some more money at the expense of having the jobs outsource to foreign labor in the next generation.

  3. Public support for unions has diminished greatly over the years. Delaying hundreds of ticketed passengers at any one time is unlikely going to reverse that sentiment.

  4. American canceled a flight I had organized for a group of 17. Email the night before a 5:00 a.m. flight said “your flight has been canceled.” 30 minutes later another email said, “We were unable to rebook you.” The group phone number recording said, “Call us during business hours.” A regular phone CSR said go to the airport first thing in the morning. The agent at the airport said she couldn’t help, but with considerable pressing by me gave me another phone number. Finally with 17 people waiting, we learned we could go the next day. AA is a badly run airline. Complete management overhaul is needed.

  5. Hopefully this issue will finally force AA to clean house at the executive management level.

  6. AA didn’t unilaterally give a raise to employees. They got a helping hands agreement which the employees hate. It was negotiated with the unions. Management likes to say that they felt the need to just give employees a raise but there was give and take.

    Also management is to blame here. They say that they’ll give the employees raises, but they have to giev up so much, thousands of jobs, forego any insourcing of ramp jobs at big stations like DTW, IAH, SNA, BNA where there are enough mainline flights to require those jobs, insurance is worse, pension is gone, catering jobs gone, etc. That would be a concessionary contract. They give you a dollar and then you lose 95¢ later on.

  7. Fire them all! NW did it and Delta has benefitted from it. I would wait to the fall and clean house. Most would return for higher wages and no union. Union do NOTHING but ruin businesses in this day and age.

    I am behind AA management on this one!

  8. If I were the federal judge, I’d put senior people from both union and management in a room with a federal mediator and tell them they can leave after a deal is reached – and not before.

    Shame on both sides.

  9. It’s good to see the employees standing up for themselves. These are the people that took it on the chin when things were bad. Now that things are good, management wants the employees to concede more? That’s completely wrong.

  10. They sky would have been a lot brighter in my world if the boomers didn’t squander our wealth and industry to get cheaper trinkets from overseas and then import foreign labor to drive wages down and house prices up.

    Yay boomers and their g-g-g-generation!

    They literally called themselves the “me generation” what a load of crap.

  11. Unions are not needed and they really only care about themselves not the safety and well-being of the airline customers. They care nothing about letting people be stranded all over the country-world.ONLY ABOUT THEIR OVER THE TOP BENEFITS AND $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

  12. We are scheduled to fly to Oahu in late September.
    With all that is going on with American I now wish we
    had booked on Delta even though is was more expensive.
    On the other hand we flew to Cozumel on American
    from Nashville through Dallas. We loved it, new Plane
    Cheerful Flight Attendants every Flight On Time
    so we are hoping for the best this time, but what really
    irritates me now is now I have to worry about it!
    We booked Prem Seats so for that much Money
    we should not be feeling uneasy and worrying
    about getting there and back in a timely manner
    or our Flight getting canceled.

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