The American Airlines – US Airways merger still isn’t complete. Their mechanics and fleet service workers are on two different contracts. And even though the airline is able to send US Airways planes to fly former American Airlines routes with a mix of pilots and flight attendants from either former airline they’re still running as two separate airlines when it comes to maintenance.
They’ve negotiated for some cross-fleeting of maintenance work between the US Airways and American Airlines labor groups, but that’s limited.
The merger of the two airlines was supported by its unions. US Airways workers would generally get raises coming up to American Airlines levels of pay. Why American Airlines workers wanted the US Airways management team to come in, though, was always a mystery (beyond mere resentment of legacy management).
US Airways management was never good with labor. The US Airways and America West pilots never managed to get a joint contract after the merger. Legacy America West pilots were still paying a monthly fee to access their scheduling system even by the time US Airways and American merged, for instance.
We’re already on the cusp of pilots and flight attendants union contracts becoming amendable again, but no contract has come into place for the airline’s mechanics.
- The mechanics didn’t form a single union. Instead they’re represented by an ‘alliance’ of each group’s former unions (TWU and IAM).
- Each work group has different priorities, for instance US Airways mechanics had a better health plan they want to keep. The airline isn’t going to take the most generous provisions out of each contract and agree to those across the board, but neither work group wants to give up on its priorities.
- American has the most restrictive work rules of the major airlines. United and Delta outsource more than American does. So when American says they’d happily sign either the Delta or United deals, and that mechanics are going to get something industry-leading that’s true — but also feels like a giveback so they’re not willing to take what work groups at other airlines have taken.
- 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).
Since the airline hasn’t been able to get a deal done, bad feelings have festered.
- Mechanics have engaged in a work slowdown not just writing up more problems and refusing to work overtime, but working slowly, identifying problems at the last minute, dealing with paperwork slowly. The airline has had to cancel more flights than competitors by orders of magnitude. It’s left the airline with no margin for error, even the slightest bit of weather throws them off their game.
- The airline took its mechanics to court to get an injunction against the work action, since it’s impermissible under the Railway Labor Act.
- Mechanics have threatened ‘the most vicious strike action the likes of which you’ve never seen’
So it’s easy to place the blame squarely at the feet of Amercan’s mechanics for flight delays and cancellations. Goodness knows employees groan when they see mechanics come on board an aircraft at this point, rather than appreciating that mechanics are keeping them safe many crew assume they’re just being messed with.
However it’s far from just the mechanics work slowdown that has contributed to the airline failing to meet its operational goals this summer.
- The 737 MAX grounding has meant 24 planes out of service. The airline reduced its schedule as a result, but this is a fleet that’s also not providing spare aircraft. Meanwhile they’ve continued to retire MD80 aircraft from their fleet.
- Deferred maintenance catches up with you. Riding the fleet hard already going into summer, in part because fo the ariline’s operational plan but magnified by the MAX grounding, there are simply going to be more (legitimate) mechanical events.
- The failure to get a joint contract itself, while cross-fleeting, has meant that mechanical delays are longer. Former American Airlines mechanics are limited in what work they can perform on an ex-US Airways aircraft and vice versa. So if a US Airways plane breaks down at an American Airlines station some work requires waiting for US Airways mechanics to fly in to fix it — the contracts don’t allow the mechanics who are already on the ground to do the work. The job action comes into play here as mechanics have been less willing to take these assignments.
- Failure to supply needed parts where aircraft fly. We’re a far cry from a dozen years ago when US Airways largely warehoused parts in Phoenix to save money and used to have to fly them to Europe when a plane broke down there. However I’ve heard from mechanics about the lack of parts and equipment being stocked at major stations, so they have to wait endless hours to do work that should be completed in far less time.
I’ve certainly written the most about the mechanics slowdown component of this issue. It’s what employees and the company have been most vocal about. But even without that the operation would still be suffering. And the reason to get a joint contract done isn’t just to end the animosity (an odd place to be for a company claiming its culture is its competitive advantage), it will also reduce the friction in getting legitimate maintenance work accomplished — on ex-US Airways aircraft by legacy American Airlines employees and vice versa.
Even so, the airline will have to invest in clearing deferred maintenance items. It will have to stock the parts needed to keep the fleet flying. In the meantime they’re still planning to re-start their domestic narrowbody densification program next year, so they’ll be taking additional aircraft out of service. It may be awhile for the airline’s operation to recover even after they get a deal done with mechanics and there’s little indication at this point that a deal is close. The next National Mediation Board status conference (not negotiations) will be held August 15th.