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Latest News - March 2010

March 1, 2010
U.S. Airline Union Disputes Could Disrupt Flights
Source: USA Today
Author: Dan Reed


Air travelers in the USA could face the same type of labor relations-driven flight disruptions that crippled air travel in parts of Europe last week.

American, Continental, United, US Airways and Southwest are in prolonged contract talks with various unions.

Several have the potential to boil over, though it's not an ideal time to strike.

Air travel remains in a slump, and unemployment hovers around 10%. U.S. airlines have piled up more than $54 billion in losses and shed 170,000 jobs in the last decade, a 23.4% decline.

Airline workers "don't have a strong hand, but they seem to be getting close to the boiling point," says airline labor expert and retired United pilot Kit Darby of Aviation Consulting. "It's like in the movie (Network): They're as mad as hell, and they aren't going to take it anymore."

Last week, pilots at Germany's Lufthansa walked out for a day over worries some routes will be turned over to partner airlines with lower pay for pilots. British Airways' attendants voted to strike sometime this spring, and its pilots are in Britain's highest court, fighting management's plans to cut vacation pay, as a prelude to a strike. Some Air France pilots walked out Friday to protest cost-cutting.

Next up? Possibly American Airlines' flight attendants or mechanics and ramp workers. Both unions say they'll seek the start of a 30-day clock leading to a strike deadline if talks this week don't produce a deal to their liking. Other labor groups, including pilots at United, Continental and US Airways, are further from a strike procedurally but may be on the same trajectory.

The last major airline strike in the USA was in 2005. Most of the Northwest mechanics who walked out then never returned. Northwest, now a part of Delta, hired temporary replacements and outsourced maintenance work.

Airline strikes are rare. The Railway Labor Act aims to keep planes and trains running because of their importance to the economy. Air and rail unions must go through a long, complex process before a strike can happen. But the process can create frustration and distrust on both sides.

The travel slump adds to tension.

"The airlines aren't in a particularly good financial situation to be facing additional labor costs, which is what the unions, understandably, are demanding," says consultant Carlos Bonilla at AirlineForecasts in Washington. Bonilla was a transportation and labor policy adviser to President George W. Bush.





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