Uh Oh: American Airlines Employee Contract Negotiations Are Underway

Filed Under: American, Unions

While I don’t think there will be any immediate impact, this is something to watch over the coming days, weeks, and months, in my opinion.

American contract negotiations are ramping up

The early stages of contract negotiations are starting between American Airlines and two of their biggest workgroups:

  • The contract with flight attendants (represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants) becomes amendable as of December 2019
  • The contract with pilots (represented by the Allied Pilots Association) becomes amendable as of January 2020

It goes without saying that employees are likely going to be asking for a lot. In some ways I can’t blame them, given that American’s CEO has assured us that the airline will never lose money again, and will make 3-7 billion USD per year (go figure the airline made less than the lower end of that the year after he said that).

For example, American’s pilot union has the following priorities:

  • Improve scheduling, company transparency and accountability, and quality of work life
  • Achieve industry-leading hourly pay rates and address gaps in compensation and benefits with peers
  • Undertake contract repair, with a focus on items that were modified in bankruptcy

I’d note that pilots are in many cases already back to pre-9/11 wages, and a senior 777 captain is earning close to $400,000 per year including all compensation. I’ll be curious to see how much more they get.

What contract negotiations mean for customers

It’s anyone’s guess how messy these negotiations get. Historically airline contract negotiations get really messy, though at the same time airlines are generally in a better position than in the past. That also has the downside of meaning that employees will try to negotiate for more.

So I doubt we’ll see any immediate impact here, but we could start to see some soon.

On the most basic level, we could see employees at airports handing out flyers, picketing, etc., to get their message out.

On the far end of the spectrum, we could see some sort of industrial action eventually.

But it’s everything in between that I’m most worried about as a customer. I don’t want to name airlines or instances, but historically employees at some airlines have used other, less official tactics as part of these negotiations:

  • In the cases of pilots, we’ve sometimes in the past seen strategic no-shows to maximize the number of cancelations, intentional delays (including intentionally delaying flights over maintenance that’s deferrable), and at one airline I even recall pilots were “riding the brakes” while taxiing, in order to increase fuel burn
  • In the case of flight attendants, we’ve also sometimes in the past seen strategic no-shows to maximize cancelations, intentionally worse service, etc. (heck, in 2012 Cathay Pacific’s flight attendant union told flight attendants to withhold smiles as a negotiating tactic)

I’m sure the professionals at American Airlines would never, ever do anything like, but it has happened at some other airlines that shall remain nameless (with the exception of Cathay Pacific, since I thought that example was just darling). 😉

This isn’t intended to be pro or anti union

I just want to clarify that my intention isn’t to bash the frontline employees of American here. I’m someone who is in favor of management and employees working closely together towards a common good.

All too often that doesn’t happen, and that probably largely comes down to corporate culture in America. My point is this:

  • I respect the relationship Delta has with their flight attendants, who choose not to be unionized
  • I respect the relationship Southwest has with their flight attendants, who are unionized, but management and the union are (mostly) civil

In the case of American, I absolutely think management has let down employees. Let’s take money out of the equation here. Management hasn’t given employees a vision to stand behind, and that’s a huge failure.

Heck, American’s upper management has let all of us — customers, employees, and shareholders — down.

Contract negotiations can get dirty. In an ideal world, management and employees could work closely together towards a common good. Obviously that hasn’t been working that well based on American’s lack of vision, so I guess we’ll see how this plays out between management and unions…

  1. “strategic no-shows to maximize the number of cancelations, intentional delays (including intentionally delaying flights over maintenance that’s deferrable), and at one airline I even recall pilots were “riding the breaks” while taxiing, in order to increase fuel burn” – why are they not all firable offenses for intentional irresponsibility? In any other company, sabotaging business performance for personal gain is a good way to lose your job…

  2. why should anyone show mercy to those militant unions who literally use us as pawns in their game.

    if they threats prevail, they win, but when they don’t, the customers are the ones suffering the most. Unions had their glorious heydays in the bygone era, but modern day unions are a major PITA.

  3. They start from an untenable position.

    “Achieve industry-leading hourly pay rates”

    We’re reminded by Garrison Keillor, paraphrased, that not every company can pay above average. Otherwise, you’re all just chasing your tails.

    But they have many components to work with. Let’s hope for the best.

  4. @Lucky: “I’d note that pilots are in many cases already back to pre-9/11 wages” — Does this account for inflation? If not, that’s actually pretty terrible.

    @DC-PHLyer — Good luck replacing a bunch of pilots and flight attendants on short notice.

    @henryLAX — What exactly are workers supposed to do? Their only bargaining chip is to withhold their labor. If they can’t do that, they’ll just have to roll over for management every time.

  5. Just bring Ben Smith over from AF-KLM who’ll just capitulate to the unions like he did when he was temp CE of AF and gave them everything they wanted of and Lucky will sing his praises to the high heavens the cost be damned.

    In my experience bad relations between unions and management are down more to management not following agreed processes and agreements than because of Union bloody mindedness.

  6. AA mechanics haven’t had a contract since 2003 with no sign of one anytime soon. Could someone look into this? They are after all, what keeps the planes in the air.

  7. pilots for the most part are glorified bus drivers. Sure you want skilled pilots for those oh shit moments, but in the end its the customers that end up paying. If flight attendants want more money, perhaps they smile and stay off the phone when passengers are deplaning

  8. I don’t know if this had anything to do with the negociations but two days ago my husband and I had a nightmare experience with American’s maintenance practice. After a 3 hour delay in Monterey airport (waiting for a mechanic to drive down from San Jose to shut an engine latch and—when he didn’t show up—flying one down from SJC). We made our connection with what we thought was minutes to spare only to learn that our flight was delayed and then cancelled (maintenance!). After spending 45 minutes with the world’s most incompetent gate agent (She actually told us to just call American because she couldn’t figure out how to help us) we found out that American had automatically rebooked us on a red eye to Dallas and a flight to our final destination 11 hours later. We had to demand hotel and meal vouchers because the gate agents didn’t want to issue them. We are stuck with a $60 cab fare tab because the agents insisted the hotels had shuttle service even though I told them I called the hotel and they didn’t. We finally got home a day late but 2 of our 3 checked bags did not. I’d say American is the worst but they are all bad. Warren Buffet owns 9 % of the shares in each airline and he calls the shots along with other shareholders.

  9. For every “maxed out 777 captain” making 400k a year, there are still people stuck as FOs on narrowbodies that got screwed over back from the days of the TWA merger and then the post 9/11 global aviation slowdown. There will be pilots who retire as FOs, and more who will be flying reserve or low seniority rigs as relatively junior captains into what should be their golden years. People underestimate the long-lasting effects the early 2000s had on industry.

  10. Having worked for AA for over 20 years and a current ExP on AA for several years, I can tell you the flight attendants always got the leftovers and the pilots always got the lion’s share. Low level management, airport agents, baggage / ramp, res agents did even worse. I support all other AA workers with the exception of Sr. Management and Pilots who seemed to rip off the other labor groups.

  11. @Sean is right on. The seniority system cuts two ways and the entire labor system is built on seniority. It’s good when you get to the top but unless your timing is perfect it takes a while to get there and the you aren’t there for long before you have to retire. And if your airline goes belly up then you get to start all over at the bottom working for peanuts.

    I don’t work for the airlines and I’m glad I can move to a new company without starting over at the bottom.

    No clue how you’d ever change the seniority system, which I think exacerbates labor negotiations.

  12. Two points: Delta flight attendants desperately need and want a union AND Southwest’s recent trouble reflects the real relationship they have with the company (not good). The truly chauvinistic attitude of airline management REQUIRES that a union be present for the protection of the employees. Flight attendant management is absolutely abysmal, you wouldn’t believe the stories I could tell after 40 years in the industry.

  13. I’m not sure if this is related, and I really hope it’s nothing to do with the negotiations, but I just flew American for the first time in a long time (redeemer AAdvantage miles for a quick trip in Y, LHR-JFK last week and JFK-LHR earlier today), and my experience on the return to LHR was simply embarrassing (for the airline, not me). All IFE screens (both in-seat and the bulkhead map ones), usb plugs, power outlets, and reading lights in Y were disabled for the entirety of the flight. Any questions about whether it would be turned on were met with nonsensical answers like “what seat are you in? 27D? Ok, let me reset yours and see if that works”. Pretty sure it’s not possible to reset just one seat. No announcement was ever made to so much as mention the problem, let alone apologize for it. I’m planning to write to AA to complain about this (though there’s no way this entitles anyone to any sort of compensation, right?). Again, I hope this is not the case – cause if it is, well, I have no words – but could it be something to do with contract negotiations, like that TAP crew not serving meals in one of Lucky’s trip reports from some time ago?

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