US Airways Sues Pilots Union to Stop Illegal Slowdown Effort

Labor Relations, US Airways

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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44 comments on “US Airways Sues Pilots Union to Stop Illegal Slowdown Effort

  1. How can USAPA blame management for the lack of a contract when union infighting there is to blame for much of the delay? Or should I not even go down this path…

    1. That’s really the big question here. USAPA certainly can’t take responsibility for its own failings, right? So, who else can you blame? It has to be management, whether it’s right or not. (And it’s not right.)

  2. I thought that (management speak) mergers were to reduce cost and/or give the customer a better experience. I count another underestimate of merger costs.

    (Sorry, I don’t understand the legal wrangling about the actions from this side of the Atlantic. It would have been much clearer how much support the Union has, if they were allowed to organize a true strike.)

    1. We could get into the value of having labor negotiations handled the way they are here, but that’s probably best for a much longer post (that requires a lot of alcohol to get through). Whether it’s good or not, it’s clear that there is a defined path that has to be followed here. Regarding the level of support, it’s probably nothing with the west pilots but a fair number on the east. (Since a third of the pilots followed through on delaying distance learning, that says something.)

      1. If all parties had a true interest in obtaining a solution, contracts would have been signed and the solution would be implemented by now.
        My question is (remember my armchair position six hours east) is US Airlines trying to force through contract changes against the will of a significant part (33%) of the affected employees (inclusive) or is the union playing power games, trying to get an influential after-merger position?

        Yes, what happens looks childish; I am looking forward to an essay about how US law and regulations stand in the way of a mature solution. (In the Netherlands this kind of “work according to the book” actions would be legal in transportation. Even short-term strikes (one day) are allowed.)

        1. Short-term strikes (though illegal in the US, I believe) have the benefit of being, well, short and generally are accompanied by lots of notification.

          I remember a short term strike of the metro and bus in Lille, France. There were signs posted on every bus/metro stop for atleast a week or two before the strike notifying passengers.

          Given the choice of disruption, I would prefer a one-day strike because you could shift things around as opposed to weeks-long strikes.

        2. My question is (remember my armchair position six hours east) is US Airlines trying to force through contract changes against the will of a significant part (33%) of the affected employees (inclusive) or is the union playing power games, trying to get an influential after-merger position?

          US Airways isn’t trying to force through anything. It did make the offer that it would bring the East guys up to West pay standards immediately, but since the two pilot groups still haven’t integrated, it can’t really do that. That’s why US Airways is in the courts trying to find out who it is supposed to negotiate with. This really is entirely an intra-union struggle.

  3. Maybe you need to invent a “special lifetime acheivement” Cranky Jackass Award. It seems like our whole society is becoming one big kindergarten (the whole debt ceiling farce is another example). What ever happened to adult behavior?

  4. Cranky (or any legal expert) – can that particular pilot who flew the reserve flight to FRA and then took all the flak for it sue for defamation of character?

    I agree with DesertGhost…why can’t people be adults?

    1. If I was that pilot, I would not be happy at all. Hope he can take action and does- even if it is just an apology. That was totally uncalled for. How do the other pilots feel about how their union dollars are being spent? Perhaps there, but for the grace of God, go I?

      And agree with JM’s comments below about Piedmont. What a wonderful, honorable airline with incredible employees. By the way, how is that cool Northern efficiency working out?

    2. That’s a great question and I don’t know the answer. It would seem like there would be something he could do to respond to having his name blasted around, but I don’t know what the rules are within the union. Maybe it’s permitted if it’s within a closed group?

  5. USAPA’s tactics remind me of some of the stuff pulled by BN employees at DFW described by John J. Nance in his book about Braniff, “Splash of Colors”.

    Classic “work to the rule” union stuff. The Pink Panty award is just vile.

    Real shame that this is happening at Piedmont’s old Charlotte hub. Piedmont founder Tom Davis must be spinning in his grave right about now.


  6. I’m curious in how quickly the preliminary injunction will be ordered. The airline said in one of their filings, that if the pilots are in an illegal job action, it is warranted. If they’re not, the injunction has no change for the union.

    1. Yeah, I was wondering that too. When I was an associate at a large law firm several years ago, I worked on a couple of these (one of which we filed, one of which we didn’t). I recall the strategy is to get to a judge ASAP — like within a couple of business days. The primary objective is to get the preliminary injunction almost immediately. We were never really going after damages against the union, just to stop the slowdown.

      BTW, none of the cases I worked on ever had facts as good as these for management. I mean, if I were still a lawyer, this would seem like a gift from heaven — a case I couldn’t lose! That said, justice can sometimes be a bit random, so nothing is a sure thing.

  7. From what I’ve read on this blog, it sounds like there’s a definite attempt on the part of some pilots to sabotage the US operation. The question is whether the airline can prove that the union is pulling the strings. In the current political environment, that might be difficult.

    1. I briefly mentioned this case to an employment law friend of mine. She indicated that the courts have a low tolerance for interfering with transportation. Plus the union has an obligation to instruct their members not to engage in action like this, but they haven’t.

      1. I think much of this is overblown. It takes two to tango. I am sure the union keeps records too. I would think that they can probably show some safety infractions. This is the sort of thing that happens in hostile work environments.

    2. The airline sent several letters to USAPA all along the last few month, all specifically asking USAPA to cease their concerted efforts. USAPA ignored the letters and did nothing to stop. Big mistake. Management waited long enough and USAPA awakened a sleeping tiger. This will bankrupt the union, and the east pilots will have to pay to keep their sham union afloat, adding insult to injury as they are currently paid less than AWA. They made their bed, soiled it, and now have to lay in it.

    3. I don’t think this will be especially politicized. The National Labor Relations Board has been getting press lately for being highly politicized, but airlines are not under its jurisdiction. Their labor relations are governed by the Railway Labor Act and regulated by the National Mediation Board. Regardless, this current dispute is a lawsuit in federal court, not before any board.

  8. What do you expect from the guys out east? They killed every airline they bought, went to chapter 11 twice and was going to shut down before America West bought them. The agreed to arbitration, then reneged. They are a cancer to the airline, the offenders should be fired. USAPA is a joke, and if the airline wins the damages, the West pilots won’t have to pay for their thuggish east counterpart’s concerted action to harm the company. America West employees take pride in their jobs. BTW, happy anniversary to America West, August 1. And for the East…did you really think you could get away with this? Phone calls, texts, emails, lanyards, decals…really stupid, amazingly stupid…even for a union.

    1. Right now, I cannot see stepping foot on a plane piloted by a USAirways pilot with all of these distractions going on- how can I know if they are East or West? I have friends working at USAir and I feel so sorry for them. People are extremely stressed. Perhaps counselors should be available in the crewrooms for people affected by this stressful situation not of their doing.

      1. That’s exactly what USAPA is betting on. For my part if I was flying soon I would try to get on a US flight for the simple reason it would be my small middle finger to a union that seems to be run by the same 2-year-olds that run this country. No offense intended to real 2-year-olds.

        1. If I could be sure it was a West crew, I would be on the plane in a jiffy. I just am not comfortable with flying on a plane whose pilot(s) who may be extremely angry at the company he/she works for.

          1. If you don’t want to get on an airplane with pilots who are extremely unhappy with their management, you had better stay off of just about every U.S.A. domestic flight!

  9. back in 2005, I was REALLY on board with the pilots and their struggles. ALPA screwed a few hundred pilots that were flying for “Mid-Atlantic” – a division within the airline, but still “mainline” – as these guys time @ MDA or USAir wasn’t going to count towards their overall seniority. Even though all the paperwork we did for MDA said “USAirways”, we were required to have different paperwork for express, so I was a firm USAPA supporter. But seeing stuff likes this cause me to wonder what the heck has changed? They used to have a legitimate complaint, but its just getting worse and worse. I really wish I could support my “east” friends, but the west is right – these guys are really screwing up and hurting everyone.

  10. A legal quibble: US Airways has not “filed an injunction”; it has filed a request for an injunction. There’s a big difference there. Only a court can issue an injunction.

  11. As a former airline employee (though for DL), I have to say this is disgusting. They are treating the passengers and their fellow employees as pawns. Customer Service/Reservations/Gate employees are generally not unionized. They are taking the brunt of the abuse for the pilots’ game.

    Inside the airline the pilots look like petulant children determined to bring down the airline to get their way. That’s the sentiment we had at DL and I’m sure the US employees who are not engaged in illegal slowdowns feel as well.

  12. I have just been told that 2 flights I was scheduled to fly to DCA on had maintenance issues. The rumor was that it was union pilots which I finally got a gate person to confirm. I have now made sure I’m scheduled on a commuter plane where the pilots are not union. Shame on US Airways for not being truthful about what was going on and making their employees stonewall their customers. Even more shameful is the pilots union behind this. Not sure anyone can be sympathetic to unions when they put people that have their trust in this position.

    1. What do you expect the airline to do? Say it’s a “labor action”? They can’t know that for sure, so they have to mark it with the delay code given. The pilot may very well have taken an unwarranted action on that flight, but if the pilot said it was maintenance, then that’s how it’ll go.

  13. I grew up in a small mining town where my father was a manager. The troops went on a prolonged – 6 week – strike (this was the 70s). I remember as a kid going to the mall and getting spat on by the people on strike.

    Message is, conduct your industrial action but respect those who do not agree or want to be a part of the action. Targetting individuals is just a cowardly action by cowardly individuals.

    Sounds as though this group could be the root of the original US Airs problems.

    1. Spitting on someone is legally assault in many areas. Its despicable that this happened.

      I had a contact at a vendor who used to work at a location where he worked with the Teamsters, and was on the management team negotiating. The location of the business he was at had many unions, and they negotiated with them at various times. He had several times he was shot at while he worked at this job. Curiously it was only when Teamsters contract negotiations were ongoing.

  14. Cranky,

    Thanks for posting the PDF of the expert report. Well worth skimming, and VERY readable for anyone who has taken a statistics and/or economics course in their life (even if, like myself, they’ve long since forgotten most of it). Definitely not written in legalese at all.

    If you understand anything at all about statistics or are even vaguely familiar with it, read the report and you will see just how damning it really is. There is almost NO possible way (1 in 800,000 was the set of odds for the change in maintenance issues, I believe) that this is random chance.

    Another fun thing that Cranky left out is that the report shows that pilots are purposely reporting minor maintenance issues at airports where USAir doesn’t have a maintenance staff or spare parts at a much higher rate than where they do, so as to require outside contractors to be used and/or parts and mechanics to be flown in, intentionally and dramatically increasing the maintenance costs.

    Other random fun gems from the report:
    * Cost of a marginal minute of taxi time by aircraft, e.g. $14.43 for A32x (page 47)
    * “Each misconnected pax costs the company, on average, $452.93,” (page 52).

    Just so that I’m not totally biased, Dr. Lee’s CV shows that he has been an expert employed by US Airways at least several times in the past, so senior management at US Airways must really like his work. :-)

    That said, for a man of his stature in this specialized niche, it’s hard to imagine him not having connections to (or having done prior work for) most major US airlines.

    1. Certainly the feeling among “the troops” is that USAPA has been caught red-handed. If you read any of the message boards where employees hang out, this is obvious (I was looking at yesterday). Indeed, a lot of employees think the union will be toast. I’m not so sure about that (I don’t think US will try to crush them), but they’re certainly in for a very rough patch.

    1. Robert Johnson – After speaking with both US Airways and Queen’s University, I have determined that your supposed quote where Doug Parker says he doesn’t care about employees is completely untrue. It has been removed.

      I can only assume that you got this from one of your valued “sources” that you like to talk about. If this is the kind of stuff that you’re being fed, then it puts serious question marks around much of the other information you’ve been given, because this is patently false.

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