Pilots' 11-billion-dollar whammy

They want action on seniority, or may spoil merger


June 06, 2000|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

United Airlines' pilots are threatening to reprise their role as spoilers in the airline's proposed merger with US Airways unless their concerns about seniority are addressed and progress is made in contract negotiations.

The powerful pilots' union, which used its 25 percent ownership of the airline to force United to back away from a proposed merger with US Airways in 1995, said it does not support the $11.6 billion merger "as currently structured." However, the union didn't rule out throwing its support behind the deal in the future.

United pilots have been negotiating unsuccessfully for a new contract for more than a year and half.

"What we're doing is giving the company a chance to step up here and get our contract done and put us in a situation where this [merger] deal might be more acceptable," said Herb Hunter, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association at United. Though widely anticipated by Wall Street analysts, the union's latest statement is indicative of the uphill battle United and US Airways face in their bid to win labor support for the proposed merger.

Though US Airways' pilots have not taken a stand on the proposed merger, the airline's flight attendants have said United will have to come up with an industry-leading contract to win the union's support. The flight attendants just settled a contract with US Airways in May following a tense standoff that threatened to shut down the No. 6 U.S. airline.

"It all comes down to United working with flight attendants to make the best contract in the industry," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants for US Airways. "If they do that, fine."

About 1,000 US Airways flight attendants and nearly 500 pilots are based at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Analysts expect to hear more posturing on the part of unions in coming months.

"Labor is always one of the messier parts of these deals," said Rob Milmore, an airline analyst with Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder. "This thing is just going to drag on."

Seniority is the major sticking point for pilots at United, a large and growing airline where relatively young pilots can climb the seniority ladder quickly. Growth at US Airways has been more sluggish, and pilots tend to be more senior. On average, pilots there have about seven years more seniority than their counterparts at United.

"We've got a lot of people on our seniority list working for a big airline that's expanding and growing, and all of the sudden their careers could come to a screeching halt," Hunter, of the Air Line Pilots Association, said.

At the same time, US Airways pilots aren't willing to settle for a reduction in seniority following a merger, said Roy Freundlich, a spokesman for the US Airways unit of the Air Line Pilots Association. "We would expect our date of hire to be recognized in any merger," he said.

Ultimately, representatives of both pilots' unions will have to sort out the seniority issue if the merger is approved.

"There's an old saying in the merger of seniority lists that if everybody is angry when its over, then it was a good deal," Hunter said.

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