Airline Merger Turns South – Deviates from Original Flight Plan
A few years back America West Airlines merged with the bankrupt US Airways, the “bluelight special” of airlines. Apparently the two companies’ leaders thought it would be a seamless process based on the fact that both airlines had the word “air” in their names, and both flew people from place to place. To the general public it’s been somewhat smooth, unless you happen to find yourself booked on one of the flights designated as, “US Airways flight #666 – operated by America West.” Recently I stood in the terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport with my neatly packed carry-on bag searching for someone – anyone who could help me.
I finally found the right place to check-in and was greeted by a somewhat bitter employee. In fact, two of them stood at the desk chatting about the East pilots and the West pilots, as if there were some sort of gang war going on. By the time I boarded my flight I expected to see pilots with bandanas tied around their pant legs and teardrop tattoos hiding beneath their sunglasses.
After my trip I decided to dig deeper into this double-named airline. What I found was a tale similar to red wine – a complex, full bodied story that may have come from a vineyard that had been somewhat over-fertilized. The merger between the two airlines was announced in September, 2005. At the time, both America West and US Airways were members of ALPA; this is not a dog food, it’s the Airline Pilots Association. The boys from both sides signed a tentative agreement prior to the merger regarding critical subjects such as how to integrate seniority and which snacks to hand out during flights. With more than 35,000 employees and mini pretzels up for grabs, who wouldn’t sign an agreement?
Now this is where it gets sticky, so grab a beverage and follow along closely. To settle the pilot seniority issue, both pilot groups entered into a binding arbitration with a federal judge. Unfortunately Judge Ito from the first OJ Simpson trial was not available, so they had to settle for Judge Nicolau and a couple of his cronies. Since US Airways had been around since Orville and Wilbur Wright, and America West was the young new hot-shot airline with cash, the two didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye (on culture or the seniority issue). As the merger progressed and things started to fall into place, (or not) some feathers were ruffled when somebody didn’t get their way. The East (US Airways) pilots went for “date of hire” and the West (America West) side went for a “fair and equitable – relative” seniority list. In the end, the judge’s ruling protected the top 500 East pilots in recognition of their international routes, and the remainder of the seniority list was to be identified as, “relative.” This sounds pretty straight-forward, right? Wrong.
After the ruling, the East (US Airways) side became a little indignant and pushy about not getting their version of “date of hire.” So much so, that they voted to bust the union. Now I don’t know much about ALPA and what they did for the pilots, but I’ve read enough about Jimmy Hoffa and remember Norma Rae and what she did for the textile union (and Sally Field’s career), that I know it’s not good when you “bust” one.
So the East (US Airways) pilots did what anyone does when their collective backs are against the wall and their mommies never taught them to play nice – they played dirty. They suddenly became victims of pre-merger amnesia and forgot about the binding arbitration award. Seriously, how does anyone forget anything involving a judge? I am so confused.
Knowing full-well they had enough manpower (or pilot-power) behind them, those sneaky little US Airways devils held their own version of “Get out the vote,” and started their own in-house union called USAPA. From all appearances USAPA is not Norma Rae’s union either, as their twisted intentions seem to include a back-door-bamboozle of their “date of hire” seniority list to management, resulting in screwing the West pilots out of the pre-merger deal and more importantly, their positions on the list. Translation: The lowest on the list gets laid-off first. After digesting all this, personally, I think somebody deserves a time-out!
Unfortunately, all of this arbitration-blocking, back-door maneuvering, in-fighting and union-busting has back-fired. Although the merger began more than 3 ½ years ago, they still are not operating as one company. C’mon boys, it only took our country’s forefathers 27 days to draft, finalize and sign the Declaration of Independence. In checking for longer stand-offs, the closest data I found was a 2¾ year Papal Conclave during the 13th century. The villagers were so desperate after 32 months they decided to starve the Cardinals into making a decision. The result was the naming of a somewhat unpopular Pope George X, and one very ravenous group of Cardinals. There’s something to be said for sequestering key decision makers, don’t you think? Perhaps the leaders of this fine airline should be locked in a holding room with nothing more than a soup bone and a TV fixed on CSPAN, 24×7. I have a feeling that would bring about some pretty quick decisions.
So, where do things stand today? They’re a mess. The West and East pilots have taken to using slang when referring to each other such as USAPA Scabs – this is not a compliment, by the way. The East has succeeded in screwing the West pilots over on the seniority list, with 150 West pilots furloughed and just a handful of pre-merger East pilots who have hit the streets. It sounds like somebody needs to go back and re-read “Airline Mergers for Dummies.” I believe chapter one starts with, “Always comply with the federally arbitrated seniority list when determining your lay-off list. Do not invent your own.”
It appears that all this is stirring up quite a ruckus with the courts not to mention an odor that smells like fish. New court dates are set for late April to determine if hands need slapped, if laws were broken, and hopefully the East will be forced to follow the original rules and play nice in the sandbox. Meanwhile, the company’s CEO continues to cash his $ multi-million pay check while we, the public, now have to fly the friendly skies on this un-merged airline with no in-flight movie to entertain us as we munch on sub-par snacks.
Personally, I’m a little disturbed about the movies and the lack of quality snacks. But I’m more upset because I’m a Phoenician where America West was a home-town airline that’s now become nothing more than a shadow of its former-self – with a group of pilots who are confused, frustrated, led astray and now furloughed.
If you are disturbed enough to make some noise on behalf of the West pilots, or the lack of fair play by the East who tried the “end around,” check out the following options.
1. You could call US Airways at 480-693-5729, ask for Doug Parker, CEO – tell him you were bullied once as a kid and you don’t like what’s going on one bit!
2. Email US Airways Customer Relations. Be sure to leave a detailed comment regarding Pope George X and how wrong it is that he actually might come back from the dead before US Airways solves its West vs. East pilot’s dilemma (that never should have occurred in the first place).
3. Lastly, if you prefer the good old-fashioned anonymous letter, grab your magazines and cut out some nice block letters and words, and glue them together to make a pseudo-ransom letter from a classic kidnapping scene. Address your envelope to: US Airways, Attn: Doug Parker, CEO, 4000 E. Sky Harbor Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85034. I suggest you piece together something clever along the lines of: “Dear Mr. Parker and US Airways, Allowing the East to bust the union was wrong. Pick your oozing USAPA Scabs and get back on track. Be a man and make Jimmy Hoffa proud – make your boys follow the original rules you signed up for. Signed, Not-so-frequent-flyer in Phoenix. P.S. Where’s my movie and snack? Thanks to you, I’m bored and hungry.”