Friday, September 30, 2011

US Airways pilots told, get moving. Citing a slowdown, a federal judge rules against the U.S. Airline Pilots Association.

In a setback for US Airways' pilots union, a federal judge in Charlotte ordered the group to halt a work slowdown that the company said has delayed thousands of flights.

The U.S. Airline Pilots Association, based in Charlotte, has vigorously denied a slowdown was occurring. US Airways provided in court a statistical analysis purporting to show certain flights were delayed far more often than they should have been for any reason other than pilot behavior.

Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways operates about 90 percent of Charlotte/Douglas International's 697 daily flights.

The airline said flights from Charlotte were disproportionately affected because USAPA has strong support here.

The West Coast US Airways hub in Phoenix did not see similar disruptions.

The main results of the slowdown effort, US Airways said, were multiple cancellations and thousands of delayed flights, causing missed connections, lost luggage and other traveler headaches.

In a court hearing last month, union members testified that the company was pressuring pilots to fly on time at all costs, even risking sending passengers over the Atlantic in potentially unsafe planes.

U.S. Chief District Judge Bob Conrad was not convinced.

"USAPA has expressly tied the success of their 'fight' for a new contract to actions by their member pilots that would slow down the airline but be cloaked by the safety campaign," he wrote in the ruling.

On Wednesday, Conrad directed the union to stop pilots from engaging in any tactics to delay flights, such as slowly taxiing to and from gates, writing up unnecessary maintenance issues and refusing to let themselves be scheduled for trips.

USAPA spokesman Capt. James Ray could not immediately be reached Wednesday evening.

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr declined to comment on the ruling or the effect it might have on the airline's already-tenuous labor relations. A company email sent to all employees said US Airways is "pleased" with the injunction. The company filed the lawsuit in July.

6-year-old contract dispute

The union and US Airways are locked in a bitter, 6-year-old contract battle that stems from the airline's two bankruptcies and 2005 merger with America West. Each side says the other's demands are unacceptable, and the talks have made little progress on substantive issues.

In Wednesday's ruling, Conrad said the picture remains bleak. "The parties have never been further from reaching an agreement," he wrote.

Anonymous communiqués

In addition to the pilots' fight with the company, the union also has an ongoing internal dispute over pilot seniority between former America West pilots (called the "West" group) and old US Airways (East) pilots.

A key issue during court hearings last month was a series of anonymous emails, text messages, phone calls and stickers that some pilots reportedly received. They encouraged pilots to hurt the airline by steps such as arriving 16 minutes late and called out pilots who weren't cooperating, nominating them for sarcastic honors such as the "Pretty Pink Panties" award.

The union contended that its leaders didn't know who sent the messages and US Airways couldn't prove it was behind the communications. Union leaders said USAPA should not be held responsible for actions of rogue pilots.

But Conrad ruled that the union erred by not explicitly disavowing the messages and taking steps to stop them.

"USAPA has ratified, if not authorized, such acts by knowing about them and failing to take any meaningful action to discourage them," he wrote.

Pilot unions' restrictions

Under the federal Railway Labor Act, airline unions can't take any job actions, such as a strike or slowdown, while negotiations are still under federal mediation.

Some similar past disputes have proved costly for pilot unions. In 1999, American Airlines won a $45 million judgment against its pilots union after an 11-day sick-out.

Wednesday's temporary injunction will remain in place until a hearing on a permanent injunction. The union has one week to direct all pilots to resume normal operations and deliver copies of the notices it sends to the court and US Airways.

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