Labor woes could clog nation's airways

Three strikes threaten to wreck travelers' plans. Bush has promised to intervene.

Labor strife now brewing threatens to create a third straight year of record airline delays.

Workers at three of the nation's leading carriers are demanding a bigger piece of the profits and more job security as the industry continues to consolidate. At the same time, management is eyeing increased fuel prices and a slowing economy, and balking.

Many of the key negotiations will come to a head in the next two months, right at the start of the peak summer travel season.

The potential for trouble is catching the attention of everyone from frequent fliers to President Bush, who has promised unequivocally to take steps to prevent more disruption on the nation's overcrowded tarmacs.

The labor turmoil comes as the problems that helped wreak aviation havoc for the past two summers remain essentially unresolved, from the steadily increasing number of passengers, to inadequate runway space, to the antiquated air-traffic-control system.

The result could be another summer of record discontent and delays in the nation's airline terminals. "There is that potential," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Washington. "We just don't know how it's going to play out."

Yesterday, United Airlines flight attendants announced they'll engage in selective job actions if the company merges with US Airways without first meeting the union's demands for job security and higher wages.

On Monday, a legally mandated 30-day "cooling off" period ends, giving mechanics at Northwest the option to strike. But Mr. Bush has promised to intervene, which could delay a job action another 60 days.

And pilots at Delta are awaiting a ruling from the National Mediation Board, which would start the clock ticking on their own 30-day waiting period.

"We don't want a strike. We want to concentrate on serving our customers," says Capt. Andy Deane, spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association at Delta. "The strike option, we recognize, is a lot like nuclear war: There aren't any real winners, but it's the only means of gaining any leverage."

With the economy already faltering, many analysts fear a major airline strike could tip the nation into a full-blown recession. The Bush administration, cognizant of that, has signaled early that it won't tolerate disruption of already overburdened airways.

Last week, it announced it would invoke a rarely used section of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) to create a Presidential Emergency Board to intervene in at least one of the disputes.

"It's unprecedented for a president to say, 'I'm going to do it' in advance," says Aaron Gellman, a leading transportation expert. "That puts all of labor on notice that this president wants to tilt things in the direction of management."

The issues in each of the disputes are unique, but one overriding theme is found in them all: payback. During the early 1990s, the airlines went through lean times, and many unions, in order to help their employers survive, made wage and benefit concessions. They're now looking to recoup those losses.

Last year, United's pilots were the first to demand a larger chunk of the record profits that began rolling into airline coffers during the late 1990s. In 1994, they had agreed to a 15 percent pay cut.

In 2000, they scoffed at the company's offer of a 13 percent pay hike. After tense negotiations, during which pilots refused to fly overtime, the company finally agreed to a wage hike of more than 28 percent.

Now Delta's pilots, who also made wage concessions, are looking for a similar deal.

But their negotiations are taking place against a far different economic backdrop. In the past year, the economy has stumbled, and the airline industry, which is by nature cyclical, is bracing for another downturn. That could make negotiations far more difficult and increases the possibility of a large-scale job action.

"Last year we learned [from the United pilots] that if you want a really big pay raise you have to burn down the company," says Darryl Jenkins, director of George Washington University's Aviation Institute in Washington.

"It's just kind of generally accepted now that to get what you want you have to disrupt operations."

Professor Jenkins says both sides are to blame. Under the RLA, management is able to drag out negotiations for years after a contract's provisions expire.

For instance, Northwest mechanics are working under a contract that expired in the mid-1990s. That allows the company to continue paying workers at lower wages for years. But it also leaves labor with few options other than disrupting operations to pressure the company.

"Both sides don't use a lot of sense and are involved in a process that is fundamentally flawed," he says. "And the person who is totally inconvenienced is the passenger, who is held hostage by both management's willingness to delay things and labor's willingness to disrupt things."

Jenkins says he would "not even think" of flying this June because of the potential for bad weather and labor problems.

"Somehow or other, we have to come up with a new way to deal with labor negotiations," he says. "It's not pleasant to be stuck in an airport overnight with no place to sleep and the clothes that you've had on overnight and they're sweaty and smelly."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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