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It’s Past Time for American Airlines to Lead

On the heels of the recent announcement of staggering wage increases for the pilots at the wholly owned regional affiliates, last night American Airlines CEO Robert Isom sought to address the “unease” among our pilot group regarding the status of contract negotiations where, as he put it, “critical things like pay and benefits and work rules are at stake.” Remarkably, Mr. Isom sought to address that “unease” by outlining management’s plans to wait and see what gets ratified by the pilots at our competitors before deciding how to proceed in negotiations with APA. We urge Mr. Isom to rethink the “wait and see” approach and do something that unfortunately seems so foreign to the management team at American Airlines … lead.

“You are not going to fall behind your network peers” in terms of compensation is not a way to address the “unease” of a pilot group that has been languishing under the terms of a bankruptcy contract for way too long. We think it would be far better for American Airlines to try a different approach and actually lead its network peers. The American Airlines management team’s record indicates that they are much more comfortable reacting to situations – as was more than evident at the onset of the pandemic – as opposed to being proactive leaders, often to the detriment of the operation. It was APA that assumed the leadership role – operationally, legislatively, and legally – to get this airline through the myriad of unprecedented issues the pandemic created, with management often begrudgingly following our lead. Now management should listen to us again by negotiating the industry-leading contract that will make our airline the carrier of choice for passengers, pilots, and investors alike, rather than waiting to follow what everyone else in the industry does first.

As we experience unprecedented demand recovery, management again is in reactive mode at the wholly owned regional carriers as if it were in a deep stall. Earlier this month, Mr. Isom reported the grounding of 100 regional jets, citing an insufficient number of pilots to operate the aircraft. It’s impossible to ignore the obvious conclusion – management again waited until it had a full-blown crisis on its hands before taking steps to enhance its ability to attract and retain new-hire pilots at the regional affiliates. So what has American Airlines management now done to try to address that crisis? They’ve reacted by throwing money at the problem they created as shown by the recent announcements from Envoy, Piedmont, and PSA regarding significant pay increases.

It’s also notable that, in typical American Airlines management Band-Aid fashion, the big pay increases are in effect only through August 2024. Apparently, management intends to weather the immediate crisis and – once the regional pilot supply has stabilized – they believe they will be able to turn around and roll back pilot pay at the three carriers. You won’t find that on anyone’s short list of best business practices, and it’s easy to predict just how toxic the effect will be on labor-management relations if the pay increases are rescinded down the road.

As detailed in the APA Negotiating Committee’s most recent update, and confirmed by Mr. Isom’s message last night, management has made clear it intends to wait until the details of the agreement in principle reached by United Airlines management and its pilots are known before deciding what to do regarding compensation in our Section 6 negotiations. But our compensation is not where these negotiations begin and end. We are going to get paid – rest assured of that. Mr. Isom told us that last night. And, to use his words, management has “got a track record of keeping [their] word on that.” And even if they don’t keep up with their “track record,” the market will dictate fair compensation for our pilots.  

As we all know far too well, however, it’s more than total compensation where our existing contract lags. APA has been offering solutions to enhance the scheduling integrity for the airline and the traveling public. We want schedules that respect the quality of life of our pilot group, which in turn will improve the reliability of our airline. The gaps in our contract with our industry peers are understood by everyone – pilots, passengers, analysts, and management alike. We all understand that, on most good days, it seems like the schedule that management has built is one thunderstorm away from a total meltdown. And we all know what the bad days look like. Why management refuses to acknowledge that APA has real “win/win” solutions to those problems remains a mystery to all of us on this side of the table and, I suspect, to industry analysts as well. “Wait and see” is not going to fix those problems.  

By any measure – passenger satisfaction, stock price, labor relations, you name it – American Airlines is an airline in distress. Anyone who doubts that need only research the airline’s perennial status as an industry laggard in all quantifiable metrics. The airline is in a crisis of competency that has been years in the making. In the J.D. Power North America Airline Satisfaction Study published a few weeks ago, American Airlines was ranked last of seven carriers for its First Class product, and ninth out of 11 carriers for its Economy/Basic Economy product. That’s merely the latest in a long line of dismal report cards. American Airlines is notorious throughout the industry for the time it takes to recover from operational disruptions. It seems that, all too often, the “go-to action” for operational challenges or disruptions is to violate our contract because they don’t seem to know any other way to fix the operation.

As professional pilots, we know how important it is to avoid getting behind the jet, yet that’s a good analogy for what occurred at the company’s wholly owned regional affiliates and what’s happening at the mainline. I cannot imagine anyone being surprised by how much people want to travel after being largely unable to do so during the past two years of the global pandemic, yet once again it appears that American Airlines management is left trying to react to a situation that everyone else saw coming.

I have said it before, and it bears repeating: Management ought to be investing in its mainline pilots – in terms of compensation, benefits, and work rules – so that American Airlines is the top choice for every Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, Coast Guard, bush, private, corporate, fractional, and regional pilot. That’s how it ought to be, so that other airlines are trying to pay their pilots enough to prevent them from coming to American Airlines. Sadly, management just doesn’t seem to see it that way.

Mr. Isom, it’s time to lead. None of us can afford to “wait and see” what others do. The operation needs to be fixed now.

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