Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pilots versus Pilots - Years of Waiting in TWA Lawsuit

What's the difference between a pilot and a jet engine? 
The engine stops whining when the plane is parked at the gate.

Just because airline pilots are prone to complain, doesn't mean that sometimes they don't have a legitimate beef.  When it comes to the merger of American Airlines and TWA 10 years ago, a federal jury has determined that the TWA pilots were indeed done wrong by their union, the Air Line Pilots Association.

Just how the union sold its members down the river is described in court documents.  But in brief, the TWA pilots claimed that ALPA betrayed them by promising not to fight American Airline's in-house union, the Allied Pilots Association, even though APA was insisting all the TWA pilots must go to the bottom of the seniority list.  

"Why would ALPA do this?" you might ask. Because it was hoping that when the dust settled, APA would mosey on over and rejoin ALPA, which it had left in 1963. The eleven thousand American pilots would have been an eye-popping infusion of new dues-paying members.

Lee Seham an expert who testified in the case put it this way,  "ALPA would be motivated to avoid the alienation of APA - the future prize - by minimizing the advocacy of TWA pilots."

There were more than 2,200 TWA pilots at the time American agreed to buy out the financially troubled aviation pioneer, once owned by Howard Hughes. If the TWA pilots went to the bottom of the senority list, they would be the first furloughed if things in the industry went bad. After September 11 things went very bad indeed and 1,200 of the former TWA pilots lost their jobs.

Alan Altman, now employed by JetBlue was one of them. He had been a first officer at TWA on the B767 at the time of the merger. When the TWA pilots found themselves far below new hires at American, and getting laid off while junior American pilots continued to fly, Alan said it was "a horrible experience," pointing out the irony of TWA's long standing involvement with the eighty year old union.

"Here we are, a founding member of ALPA and when we needed them, they turned their backs on us."

I sent emails to ALPA's spokeswoman and the union's lawyer Steven Fram, but neither replied to my questions.  From what I can cull from their filings in the lawsuit though, the union's defense was that TWA pilots needed to take a glass-is-half-full approach to their situation with APA. 

ALPA claimed that if the pilots hadn't accepted the my-way-or-the-highway stance of APA the entire merger would have gone down the drain. Without American willing to pick up the shreds of the battered airline, it would have gone out of business. Where would TWA pilots have been then? 

Nope, it is not a pretty picture this view of a union more obsessed with its own coffers than the survival of two thousand of its members - not a flattering look at APA either with its its take-it-or-leave-it intransigence.

But its the TWA pilots who are having the next-to-the-last laugh now. Last Wednesday, lawyers Allen Press and Joe Jacobson returned to St. Louis from New Jersey where the jury handed them their victory. They were  greeted at the airport by some of the pilots they represent. Alan Altman described the mood as "unbelievable" and "amazing" before concluding, "I can't even describe the feeling."

Former TWA pilots Jim Hartman and Glen Steineke ( (left and center) with their attorneys Press and  Jacobson at the St. Louis airport last week

It may feel good to have a jury confirm that an injustice has been done. But it doesn't put a dime into the pockets of the pilots. That won't happen until lawyers begin the complicated process of calculating - pilot by pilot - what each might have made if some more equitable form of integration had taken place back in 2000. 

Allen Press won't name a sum, but suggests the financial harm to his clients has been "huge." Having worked for a while with trial lawyers, I'm guessing Press will likely ask the court for many millions and just as likely it will be years before the final sum is determined and the case is closed. 

But there is no reason for other airlines, with mergers in the wings, not to pay attention to what a jury has unanimously determined to be unfair and keep that firmly in mind when its time to integrate their own pilot groups. 

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