United and Aer Lingus Earn a Cranky Jackass For Plan Which Could See Their Crews Disappear

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that both United and Aer Lingus made a big mistake yesterday when they announced a joint 06_09_12 jackassventure that I can best describe as goofy. But that’s about the closest I can get to saying something nice. More importantly, United has decided that yes, labor relations can (and apparently should) get worse. Aer Lingus not only agrees, but it also has proven that it has no clue what to do with its business. I actually worry that in the long run, this could be the end of United. So for that, they’ve certainly earned themselves the Cranky Jackass award. Let me explain.

First, let’s talk details. Aer Lingus and United will join forces to first fly Washington/Dulles to Madrid in summer of 2010 (that’s a lot of notice) and then fly elsewhere the following summer. All costs and revenues will be shared between the two on the joint venture routes. Aer Lingus will be responsible for actually flying the route with three A330s (1/3 of its existing long haul fleet, though 6 more A330s are coming in starting this year) that will have Aer Lingus branding on the outside and apparently both United and Aer Lingus branding on the inside. United will be in charge of actually filling the plane. It appears the crews will come from the US but won’t be United employees. I’m not entirely sure how that will be structured yet, but my guess is that it will be low cost, non-union labor.

Let’s look at the math for both airlines here, so we can understand why this is a disaster waiting to happen. United, you’re up first.

United Rationale for Aer Lingus JV

This route should be a United route all the way. It’s from the airline’s Washington/Dulles hub to a European spoke that has a limited Star Alliance presence. There are a couple ways to look at this. The innocent way is that United probably looked at Madrid and figured it either didn’t have enough planes to devote to the operation or it didn’t have the right number of seats on a plane to make the route work. My guess is that with Iberia already flying the route, it’s a marginal one at best. So here comes Aer Lingus to fly it for them in a better configuration and likely with lower costs (especially with new crews). Now United loyalists can fly to Madrid when they couldn’t before. Everyone’s happy. But there’s another way to look at it, and this is what scares me.

It’s entirely feasible in my mind that this could be a way to eventually drive out the pilots and flight attendants completely. It may sound far-fetched, but think about it for a minute. United has already been effective at giving smaller aircraft flying to regional carriers. For 2009, domestic mainline will be down at least 11.5%. On the other hand, Express flying will be up at least 8%. The pilots loosened up and allowed this when the airline was about to die a few years back, and I’m sure they now regret it tremendously since they’re seeing their jobs disappear.

Now United is effectively trying to do the same thing on the upper end of the scale with long haul, international flying. The airline has no new aircraft on order, so there’s no prospect for growth for several years out. Instead, United is looking to outsource its growth, and I could see this extending to the entire operation.

Now, if I were starting a new airline from scratch, I would seriously consider outsourcing my flying. (I’d keep my customer service folks employed, but that’s another discussion.) An existing airline, however, really doesn’t have that option, especially in a weak state. It’s not like United could just dismiss all their pilots and flight attendants one day and be up and running again the next. Think of it like a strike. An airline would have to go through some severe operational pain before it could get there, and an airline in United’s weak financial condition probably couldn’t weather a storm like it barely did in the summer of 2000.

All that matters here is what the unions think, even if it’s not the ultimate goal for management. If they see United’s end game as the end of all their jobs, they suddenly have nothing to lose. Do they worry about putting the company out of business by working to rule and hurting the operation? No, they don’t. Because if they think their jobs are gone anyway, they might as well bring down management with them.

We don’t know yet exactly how the unions will react, but we do not they aren’t happy. Take a look at the ALPA’s statement on the deal. Here’s a taste:

. . . This development, where United attempts to establish an airline operation without the use of United aircraft or employees, is nothing less than the outsourcing of jobs to an international company, and clearly demonstrates that this management continues to make business decisions without regard to its pilots and other employees.

The United pilots are exploring every option to put an end to the company’s blatant disregard and lack of loyalty to the United Airlines brand.

Flight attendants won’t be happy either here, of course. And I really do fear that this could be a major milestone for when we look back in 5 years. You may call me alarmist, but I’m looking way down the road and I don’t like what I see.

Now that’s look at Aer Lingus math.

Aer Lingus Rationale for United JV

Apparently, Aer Lingus has just run out of ideas. If you’re an airline with several widebodies on order, you’d think you’d have a good place to put them. But no, Aer Lingus has apparently decided that it has at least 3 airplanes that can do nothing better than fly some routes that it can’t market on its own. Not only that, but the airline has opted to try to staff the flights with employees from the US, so airline employees over there won’t benefit either.

I suppose when you have the Irish government behind you allowing you to make stupid decisions, then this doesn’t seem so bad. See, the Irish just turned down Ryanair’s bid to buy the airline again, so Aer Lingus can continue making dumb moves. I’m sure Ryanair could come up with far better uses for those widebodies than running them for United with somebody else’s employees. It’s hard to make Ryanair attractive to labor, but a stunt like this helps. I doubt we’ve seen the last of Ryanair’s chief Michael O’Leary on this one.

O’Leary, of course, loves it. And really, he should. He put out a press release today entitled, “Ryanair Congratulates Aer Lingus on Finding a Partner Which is Even Weaker and in Worse Shape Than Aer Lingus.” At least someone is happy about this whole thing.

I’m just afraid that this is a very short-sighted move that could have long lasting repercussions for everyone involved.

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