American Airlines Pilots Claim Relations With Management Are “Toxic” – You Reap What You Sow

Skift ran an article over the weekend in which the American Airlines Pilot’s union (APA) calls the relationship between the airline’s management and the pilots “toxic”. Apparently the APA has written a letter to American Airlines CEO, Doug Parker, claiming that the airlines’s middle managers are “misaligned” with their CEO’s call for better labor relations.

Skift reports the letter to Doug Parker as saying:

The pilots of American Airlines will not remain silent as we witness the rebirth of the toxic culture we fought so hard to eradicate.

The new American Airlines product is outright embarrassing and we’re tired of apologizing to our passengers. We hear from many valuable corporate clients and premiere status passengers that the product is not what they’ve come to expect from American Airlines.

Apparently Doug Parker has used recent meetings with managers to stress that American Airlines must take better care of its employees as part of taking care of customers. But the APA doesn’t believe the managers are listening.

Doug-ParkerDoug Parker while he was still just CEO of US Airways

The union letter goes on to accuse American Airlines management of violating contract terms and agreements as well as, rather more worryingly, federal regulations on crew scheduling and air operations.

American is already in damage limitation mode with spokesperson Casey Norton on record as admitting that executives are aware that a cultural change is needed and Norton is quoted as saying that the APA is “exactly right” to raise the issues that it has.

The full letter to Doug Parker can be found here.

What’s Behind All This?

As a passenger and an American Airlines Executive Platinum flyer I’m torn by these revelations.

On the one hand I agree with the pilots that quite a large part of the American Airlines offering can be embarrassing (especially when compared to premium airlines) while on the other hand my sympathies for the pilots are limited. Here’s why.

American Airlines and the various labor unions have has issues going back decades – this isn’t a new thing. The biggest clashes appeared to come while Gerard Arpey was CEO (2002 onwards) and, to use the union’s own parlance, the toxic nature of the relationship between management and the various labor factions seemed to grow and grow.

gerard-arpeyGerard Arpey – American Airlines CEO 2002 – 2011

On 29 November 2011 American Airlines filed for Chapter 11 protection and relations between management and the unions got even worse.

In 2012 the pilots took things into their own hands and decided that the best way to get their demands met was to annoy passengers:

  • In September 2012 American Airlines pilots started calling in sick in significant numbers resulting in the cancellation of hundreds of flights.
  • Significant numbers of pilots that turned up for work suddenly started finding maintenance issues on their aircraft that meant that flights were either delayed or cancelled.
  • When these pilots couldn’t find any maintenance issues they resorted to taking an inordinate amount of time to depart the gate areas and to taxi into position on the runways – causing yet more delays.

This was tantamount to strike action without an actual strike being called.

When American Airlines entered into Chapter 11 Gerard Arpey resigned and his position was taken by Tom Horton (who, at the time, was the airline’s President).

A lot of what Horton said and did during Chapter 11 endeared him to a large section of American Airlines’ customers (myself included). He appeared intent on seeing the airline come out of Chapter 11 as a stand-alone company (i.e without being taken over) and he seemed genuinely keen on improving the American Airlines product – it was Tom Horton that kickstarted the massive renewal of the American Airlines fleet that has given us the excellent 777-300 Business Class cabins and the market-leading transcon A321 premium cabins.

American Airlines Business Class A321American Airlines Business Class Seats on the Airbus A321 (Transcon Version)

But, as far as the unions were concerned, Horton was part of the old guard and the old guard was the enemy. Horton had to go.

Doug Parker, the CEO of US Airways, saw his opportunity and pounced. With the unions forming a powerful section of the Chapter 11 proceedings, Parker persuaded them that his solution for American Airlines (a take over by US Airways) was the way forward and, with the help of the unions, Parker got exactly what he wanted – something the latest letter from the pilots’ union even mentions in the opening sentence!

American Airlines failed to exit Chapter 11 as a stand-alone company, Tom Horton was promoted and then moved out and American Airlines’ customers were left to face life with Doug Parker as CEO.

The funny thing is that, with the unions (amongst them the pilot’s union) being so focused on exacting revenge on American Airlines’ management team, they entered into a partnership with Doug Parker with their eyes quite firmly shut.

US Airways, under Doug Parker, had a history of truly terrible labor relations dating back years. The last merger they participated in (with American West) created issues that were still ongoing at the time of the US takeover of American.

As Gary Leff pointed out in 2011:

The America West / US Airways integration hasn’t gone forward yet, even though the pilots were ostensibly represented by the same union. The East Coast pilots lost under their union procedures and arbitration, so since they were the larger group went out and formed a new union whose primary purpose was sticking it to the West Coast pilots (rather than the company!). Meanwhile, there have been recent campaigns against the airline that has had the carrier seeking court injunctions [against] their own workers.

And this is who the American Airlines pilots decided to get into bed with!

Since the US Airways take over of American Airlines, customers have mostly seen regressive steps being taken by the airline:

  • AAdvantage has been devalued
  • Status benefits have been cut
  • Meals on board, which had show signs of improvement under Horton, got a lot worse
  • Phone line service has deteriorated significantly
  • Even more seats were squeezed into aircraft (although this may well have eventually happened under Horton too).
  • There’s been no noticeable improvement in on-time performance
  • Crews are as likely to be sullen and curt as helpful and friendly

We’ll never know what things would have been like had US Airways not succeeded with its takeover of American but we do know that the takeover happened with the overwhelming support of the unions – in particular the pilots’ union – so they need take their share of the blame for the way things are right now.

Bottom Line

Most of American Airlines informed customers didn’t want anything to do with US Airways (just look back through the threads on FlyerTalk around the time of the merger or the current thread on labor relations) but we were landed with Doug Parker and Scott Kirby because that’s what the unions (and admittedly some of the financial institutions) wanted.

A lot of us could see that a CEO who once tried to charge for water (yes, Doug Parker really did that) wasn’t who we wanted in charge of an airline that we use on a regular basis. We also didn’t want a CEO who couldn’t settle issue from a far smaller merger dating back to 2005. But all the unions could see was short-term gain and an opportunity to stick it to the old guard at American Airlines.

So, while I do have sympathy for any pilots out there who are genuinely feeling the stress and strains of working at American Airlines I don’t really have that much sympathy for the pilots as a group.

The unions got to play “king maker” and now they have to live with that decision. They made their bed and now they’ve got to lie in it….they just shouldn’t expect too may long-time American Airlines flyers to have much sympathy for them.