US Airways Sues Pilots Union to Stop Illegal Slowdown Effort

Man, I really should have waited another day before writing that US Airways pilots union (USAPA) piece last week. Why? On Friday, US Airways filed an injunction in the courts to try to get the union to stop illegal slowdown activity. The evidence is quite comprehensive.

But let’s start with what’s important. If you’re flying, should you be concerned about a slowdown? It’s important to note that the slowdown is only being effected by “East” pilots from the pre-merger US Airways. That means that the Phoenix hub is running as usual. In fact, that’s one of the things that makes the evidence so compelling. The West operation is running just as it always has while the East has gotten much worse since May 1.

The epicenter of these problems is Charlotte, where USAPA has its strongest pilot support. If you’re flying through Charlotte, you may have had some problems during the last three months, and that could continue until (if) an injunction is issued. On time performance has suffered and there have been a few more cancellations each day, but it’s not a disastrous slowdown at this point. Still, it’s enough to get the airline to act.

So, should you stop flying US Airways on the east cost until it’s fixed? I say no; not unless you want to support illegal job action as a tactic for negotiations. If you stop flying US Airways, then those slowing things down will have achieved their goal. And remember, the West operation isn’t impacted, nor is the large Express operation. Hopefully this will all end quickly anyway now that the courts are involved.

How Bad is the Slowdown?
How bad is it? It’s not United summer of 2000 bad, but the actions seem pretty awful. Here is the motion. Take a look at this supporting brief for the juicy details. Also, here’s a report from an independent expert Darin Lee who performed statistical analysis to show how the changes are highly unlikely to be simply due to chance. (Take note, UNITE HERE. This is how to do analysis.)

There are really two parts to this. First, has there been a pilot slowdown? The statistics seem to conclusively point to “yes” as the answer. But there also has to be proof that the union is behind it, supporting it, or not doing anything to stop it. Let’s start with point one. Here’s what’s happened:

  • The rate of the number of maintenance issues written up by pilots as a percent of total flights has usually been just below 25 percent. Since May 1, that has increased by half and stayed there. Here’s a chart:
    US Airways Pilots Maintenance Write Up Rates
  • The percentage of East flights delayed due to pilot action has increased from a norm of 1.31 percent up to 2.85 percent since May 1.
  • Previously there was an average of fewer than 7 fatigue calls per month. That’s more than doubled since May.
  • Taxi times for mainline aircraft on the East were statistically about a quarter minute longer than Express. Since May, that has spiked to over 1 minute. Taxi times themselves have lengthened as well.
  • The end result here is that on-time performance in the East has dropped by 11 points and an additional 9 to 10 flights have been canceled each day due to pilot action. Once again, this is ONLY the EAST PILOTS. The West pilots and Express operations have seen no change, and that makes the evidence even more damning.

    So, it seems pretty clear that there is a slowdown here, but the harder part is proving that the union is behind it. See, the union knows that it’s illegal to have any sort of job action unless the National Mediation Board releases the two sides from negotiation and the cooling off period has passed. That hasn’t happened here, so this kind of job action would be illegal.

    Of course, that means the union, if involved, will do what it can to cover its tracks. It is, of course, already denying that it has anything to do with this, but it has left plenty of clues according to the evidence submitted by US Airways. Though there have been issues before this year including a flawed safety culture survey and incorrect information about what is considered safe to fly, the rhetoric ramped up this year.

    Get On Board for Safety
    The whole effort seems to be disguised as a safety campaign, something that has been used before as a tactic for disrupting operations at other airlines. US Airways strings together a picture of a campaign linked by a central campaign for being “On Board” the slowdown effort.

    All of the information below comes from the US Airways supporting information. Though many of the actions came from anonymous email addresses and prepaid cell phones, there were plenty of mentions of this in union communications as well.

    The union even started handing out lanyards with “Safety First” and “I’m on Board” on them. When a West pilot asked about them, the union’s communications chair said:

    The lanyards are not however just a ‘party gift’ handed to everyone; they are handed to those, from any domicile, who have first demonstrated that they are onboard with the idea that safety comes before everything else . . . there are pilots roaming the system giving them out to those who demonstrate they are on board. If you’re flying, demonstrate in some fashion that you’re on board and have one of these pilots in the back, I would imagine you’ll get one.

    Distance Learning Delays Not Safety-Related
    So where else did this campaign show up? For example, calls were made to pilots encouraging them not to complete their FAA-mandated distance learning courses until the day they were due, May 31. These calls again referenced being “On Board” and clearly had nothing to do with safety.

    Three days before the deadline, 897 pilots had failed to finish the learning, and only 1 of those was from the West group. That’s about 900 out of 2,600 active East pilots, or about a third. What’s worse? Sixty percent of those pilots had completed 94 percent of the learning, so they were just waiting for the deadline. Had US Airways not been able to get a waiver from the FAA for a couple of days, it would have had to cancel flights because the pilots weren’t going to be legal to be scheduled for multi-day trips that extended beyond May 31.

    Emails and Text Messages Leave Ample Evidence
    The informal communications got even bolder. One email told pilots “to engage in slow taxi, stay home if they are fatigued, and refuse aircraft with legal [Minimum Equipment Lists] with the express purpose of “prov[ing] that [the pilots] are willing to endure a summer of inconvenience in exchange for decent wages.”

    Decals were placed around the system with words like “+16” and “Time to get serious about a contract BLOCK +16.” The +16 reference refers to pilots arriving at the gate 16 minutes late so it counts as late in the Department of Transportation statistics.

    Another email said “[b]eing ‘ON BOARD’ means . . . do[ing] what you can to help our cause,” including being “15 MINUTES LATE EVERYWHERE.”

    A note was found on an aircraft stating “Management is very upset about the deteriorating performance of our airline. It’s time to turn up the heat. Until that time, the e-mail WE WILL Prevail[.] Pass this along to another pilot that you know is “ON BOARD[.]”

    As if that wasn’t enough, the pilots turned on themselves and started calling out people who weren’t willing to obey. A broadcast text message went out on July 24 of this year saying:

    Seems like we have our first winner for the COMPANY SUCK UP AWARD… PINK PANTY AWARD or whatever you want to call it. This A330 CAP on Reserve, on July 15th had 1 Day Available, suddenly on July 16th he is on a FRA 3 day trip. Congratulations go to [rank and file US Airways pilot] XXXX [name deleted by Cranky] as our first winner. Keep up the good work by screwing all your fellow pilots that are trying to get a contract we deserve. If you have a good reason please let everyone know.

    They then actually placed a card in his mailbox saying “CONGRATULATIONS! You’re a WINNER! Your heroic effort to help management achieve their bonus checks has earned you the Pretty Pink Panties award[.] Do you want a new contract? EARN IT[.]”

    Pretty awful stuff, right? As mentioned above, the union unsurprisingly argues that it was not behind these efforts. That means that this would have been just individual pilot actions that it can’t be responsible for, but that seems less likely after reviewing the filing. But even if that’s the case, how can the union explain why it hasn’t done anything to try to put a stop to these actions? It has a responsibility to do so and appears to have not acted, or used lukewarm responses at most.

    With this mountain of evidence, I imagine it’s going to be a tough ride for the union with mounting legal bills. Once again, I feel terrible for the West pilots and really even worse for the East pilots who are just doing their jobs and not participating is this. What happens next? The union has 14 days to respond and then it goes from there. It could take weeks or even months depending upon the different tactics used by each side.

    In the end, we’ll see if the court agrees, but there is clearly some solid statistical analysis showing evidence of a slowdown. The question is – will the union be held accountable for these actions?

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