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American Airlines Fliers Fed Up As Labor Clash Rages

Sep 27, 2012
Originally published on September 28, 2012 12:37 pm

Pat Henneberry is an airline's dream customer. She flies all week, every week, and buying an $800 ticket so that she can have full flexibility is standard operating procedure. She's an American Airlines platinum customer. But she is fed up with the endless delays and cancellations.

"On Monday I didn't get on the plane. Basically, they said they're going to be late, then an hour later they said they're canceling. It's a direct flight to Chicago. It's easy to get equipment. They said it was maintenance. It was definitely a big, huge red flag that they're canceling, because they don't have any pilots to fly any planes," she says.

Henneberry says that not making her meetings is not an option.

"Next week I have five flights that I'm on with American. If I don't get where I'm going — I own my own business — I don't get paid," she says.

American has been forced to cancel hundreds of flights, and its on-time performance has collapsed to a little more than 50 percent. The airline says its pilots are to blame.

"We're talking about write-ups for things like broken coffee pots, inoperative passenger reading lights and torn seat pockets that are causing delays. They're calling maintenance out to have those things checked and are causing delays. And those were up more than 34 percent," American spokesman Bruce Hicks says.

In 2003, with American on the verge of collapse, the pilots, mechanics, ground crew and flight attendants gave back nearly $2 billion in concessions. Later, it emerged that the airline's top managers quietly awarded themselves millions in bonuses, and tens of millions more when they retired. The workers have never really gotten over that betrayal.

"The history is the history," Hicks says. "The fact is that all of our labor groups and management and non-union groups in 2003 made significant concessions to keep American Airlines out of bankruptcy. And we worked very hard to stay out of bankruptcy, but in fact we lost $10 billion over the next 10 years — $10 billion."

On Wednesday night, it looked like there was progress. The pilots met and voted to go back to the bargaining table. After all, they've been without a contract since 2003 and are still working at their 1993 pay rates. But after the vote, a letter arrived from American management threatening to take the union to court if the pilots didn't stop delaying flights.

"Within 24 hours of being invited back to the bargaining table by this management team, they fired off a letter that essentially threatens legal action against the pilots," says Tom Hoban, who flies a 777 for American and is an officer in the union. "In that regard, it's like a baseball bat with an olive branch wrapped around it, and they just hit us up the side of the head here. It just doesn't make any sense."

Now the pilots are furious; they see executive duplicity once again. And as of Thursday afternoon, they're not going back to the bargaining table. Instead, they're meeting with their lawyers about management's letter.

"This corporation has taken this airline from first to worst. There simply is no faith in the current leadership of this management team, which is why we're pressing hard for a merger with US Airways and a change in leadership," Hoban says.

And what's American Airlines customer Pat Henneberry going to do?

"I won't happily go back at this point. I have lived through a few of these with American Airlines. And to be honest, I'm having an incredible experience on Delta. You know, I have to do business," she says.

Delta Airlines has cleverly matched the platinum status Henneberry has with American. So while American management fights to the death with its pilots union, its best customers are wandering off.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

American Airlines' fight with its pilot's union is getting ugly and passengers are paying the price. American is in bankruptcy and as this labor dispute has heated up, some pilots have been finding a lot of little things wrong with their airplanes. As a result, American's on-time performance has plummeted and cancellations are way up.

Last night, the company sent a letter to the Allied Pilots Association, threatening legal action, which has made the pilots even angrier.

From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Pat Henneberry is an airline's dream customer. She flies all week every week, and buying an $800 ticket so that she can have full flexibility is standard operating procedure. She's an American Airlines platinum customer but she is fed up with the endless delays and cancellations.

PAT HENNEBERRY: On Monday, I didn't get on the plane. Basically they said they were going to be late. And then an hour later, they said they're canceling. It's a direct flight to Chicago. It's easy to get equipment - they said it was maintenance. It was definitely a big, huge red flag that they're canceling because they don't have any pilots to fly any planes.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWYN: Henneberry says that not making her meetings is not an option.

HENNEBERRY: If I don't get where I'm going - I own my own business - I don't get paid.

GOODWYN: American has been forced to cancel hundreds of flights and its on time performance has collapsed to a little more than 50 percent. American says its pilots are to blame. Bruce Hicks is the company spokesman.

BRUCE HICKS: We're talking about write-ups for things like broken coffee pots, inoperative passenger reading lights, and torn seat pockets that are causing delays. They're calling maintenance out to have those things checked and causing delays. And those are up more than 34 percent.

GOODWYN: In 2003, with American on the verge of bankruptcy, the pilots, mechanics, ground crew and flight attendants gave back nearly $2 billion in concessions. Later, it emerged that American's top managers quietly awarded themselves millions in bonuses and tens of millions more when they retired. And the pilots have never really gotten over that betrayal.

American spokesman Bruce Hicks.

HICKS: Well, the history is the history. And the fact that all of our labor groups and our management and non-union groups, in 2003, made significant concessions to keep American out of bankruptcy. And we worked very hard to stay out of bankruptcy. But, in fact, we lost over $10 billion over those 10 years - $10 billion.

GOODWYN: Last night, it looked like there was progress. The pilots met and voted to go back to the bargaining table. After all, they've been without a contract since 2003. But after the vote, a letter arrived from American management threatening to take the union to court if the pilots didn't stop delaying flights.

Tom Hoban flies a 777 for American and is an officer in the union.

TOM HOBAN: Within 24 hours of being invited back to the bargaining table by this management team, they fired off a letter that essentially threatens legal action against the pilots. In that regard, it's like a baseball bat with an olive branch wrapped around it, and they just hit us upside the head here. It just doesn't make any sense.

GOODWYN: Now the pilots are furious. They see executive duplicity once again. And as of this afternoon, they're not going back to the bargaining table. They're meeting with their lawyers about management's letter instead.

HOBAN: This corporation has taken this airline from first to worst. And there simply is no faith in the current leadership of this management team, which is why we're pressing hard for a merger with U.S. Airways and a change in leadership.

GOODWYN: And what's American Airlines customer Pat Henneberry going to do?

HENNEBERRY: I won't happily go back at this point. I have lived through a few of these with American Airlines.

(LAUGHTER)

HENNEBERRY: And to be quite honest, I'm having an incredible experience on Delta.

GOODWYN: Delta Airlines cleverly matched the platinum status Henneberry has with American. So while American management fights to the death with its pilots' union, its best customers are wandering off.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.