The plight of the average employee at American Airlines over the past ten plus years has been relatively unpleasant, and the bankruptcy process has, to no one’s surprise, failed to yield improvement. Today, even before the pay cuts I know are coming, I find myself unable to afford the house that was easily within my budget 10 years ago. I’ve decided to downsize my finances and move into a smaller home, a process that has been all consuming during the past month.
Many have forgotten that the employees of this once great airline took huge pay cuts back in 2003 to avoid the very situation in which we are now embroiled. My personal contribution to the "keep American out of bankruptcy" fund included a 23% pay cut on top of a reduction in benefits and a displacement out of my home base for a period of five years. We took those cuts at a time when most of the other carriers were working under fresh new contracts that already put their salaries above ours, so the pay-cuts were especially deep and afforded the company a significant cost advantage over the competition. "Shared pain for shared gain" was the catch phrase we kept hearing from management, but 10 years later those managing the airline are the only ones who have gained financially as the airline has faltered under their leadership.
Yesterday, as the airline’s legal team was in court arguing to have our contract thrown out the window, I was at my attorney’s office closing on the sale of my house. As poor as the real estate market is in the US, I have been fortunate. A friend of a friend heard we were considering a move and asked to see the house. We were able to come to terms without the assistance of a realtor, saving me a significant chunk of change.
Moving into a significantly smaller home is never fun and the process of packing up and getting rid of everything that wouldn't fit was a time consuming and mentally exhausting experience. While my wife and children have been exceptionally supportive, I know the move is hard them.
So while it's been an exciting month, I haven't had time to share my experiences with you. In the last 30 days I landed in El Paso, Texas in winds gusting to almost 50 knots with 1/2 mile visibility in blowing dust. I was lucky to be stuck in a hotel room the day tornadoes tore through the Dallas area...$3500 in damage to my car. The following week I circled west of the Dallas, Ft. Worth area for an hour before thunderstorms forced a divert for fuel and topped of the month with two significant mechanical issues...all stories for another time.
So yes, it's been an exciting month at home and at work. A month now topped off with rumors of a merger between American and US Airways. I would define my position as cautiously optimistic, but find myself on the fence. The rumors of a merger between the two are nothing new, but they are now fueled with the knowledge that the three major unions at American are not only behind the idea but have successfully agreed to a tentative contract with the management of US Airways. This is a major accomplishment given almost zero progress in contract negotiations with AMR during the past five years. Not to mention that while AMR is going forward with plans to impose draconian contracts on its labor groups, the US Airways management team is promising pay raises and job protections.
While this is all a significant improvement on what AMR has planned, I’m still unable to throw complete support behind the idea of a merger. There are many reasons for this, but my primary source of concern is simple history. US Airways wants, and arguably needs, American Airlines. They have attempted and failed to merge with both Delta and United and are convinced that they need a partner to survive long term. AMR is the last ugly girl at the dance and US Airways is tired of standing with their backs against the wall watching everyone else enjoy the party. I'm convinced they will say and promise whatever is necessary to gain the trust and cooperation of the labor groups at American. This is a serious concern that was clearly demonstrated when American merged with TWA in 2001.
I mentioned before that I was displaced to another base in 2003 after our first near miss with bankruptcy. My displacement resulted in 5 years of commuting to St. Louis, Missouri to fly with the former TWA pilots. I had a love hate relationship with this pilot group. They were just another group of pilots shaped by different circumstances than my own…both competent and skilled aviators. But I also found them to be generally ticked-off about life and the impact the TWA/AA merger had on their careers. Unfortunately I was often the target of their frustrations.
The merger agreement between the two airlines guaranteed that all Captain positions in St Louis, regardless of seniority, would be flown by former TWA pilots. So during my five years in STL, I flew exclusively with former TWA pilots and often flew with Captains who were far below me on the American Airlines seniority list. If I was successful in keeping the subject of conversation off the merger all was good...but I was rarely able to avoid the subject. Once the subject of conversation veered toward the topic of the merger all bets were off. I often endured angry tirades and long trips to the "soap box." I didn't agree with much that was said but didn't feel the cockpit was the right place to get into an all-out argument, so I often kept my opinions to myself.
One thing I often heard from the TWA pilots stuck with me then and remains on my mind now. When the merger between American and TWA was announced, the employees of TWA rejoiced. They thought they had been saved. American wanted TWA and made promises to the employees…many of which they did not keep. Not unlike the promises of pay raises and job protections that I'm hearing now. The TWA employees didn't fare so well in the years after 9/11 and I'm not sure how the employees of American Airlines will fare when the dust settles on this merger…assuming of course that it occurs at all.
It is what it is and only time will tell. The one thing that I know for sure is that I am simply along for the ride. Hopefully it will be a smooth one...but I wouldn't bet on it.