In Aviation, Every Day is Labor Day

By Robert Mark on September 3rd, 2007

Today is Labor Day here in the states, a national holiday devoted to the men and women on the front lines, people responsible for building the industrial infrastructure of the U.S. economy.                                                           Labor Day parade, Buffalo New York, 1900

Since aviation is one of the most highly unionized job sectors here, it seemed like a good day to look at where we might be headed.

Pilots – This is where most people think all the fighting began, with labor and management squaring off against one another for the past 75 years. The industry is cyclical and has never proven to be much of a profit center for shareholders, except at places like Southwest. And even that carrier’s growth has slowed significantly.

Now we’re entering a period where airline pilots will have the upper hand. While the shortage of cockpit crews has not yet slapped the majors as hard as it has the regionals, the day is coming (Louis Smith from FLTops.com wrote a poignant editorial about this in Aviation Week a few weeks back).

Pilots are angry, as is just about everyone in the industry these days. Over 100,000 total jobs have been lost in the airline industry since 9/11. Millions of dollars have been given back in wages and benefits by pilots, flight attendants and mechanics.

When airline execs pay themselves fat bonuses at a time like this, they simply fan the flames of dissent among the rank and file. Strangely, management seems to want to relearn this lesson again and again.

Pilots will have their day soon, so watch for some strikes. One of the problems the airline industry does face though is that being governed by the Railway Labor Act, the White House can step in and squelch any job action. Whether labor will listen this time however is another question.

There is little doubt which way this White House will lean in a Railway dispute though. That’s why ALPA elected John Prater as a more militant alternative to Duane Woerth.

The experience level of pilots at the regionals is dropping quickly as fewer people chase jobs with low wages and long duty days. Many regional airlines have already canceled flights due to crew shortages. Watch for more of the smaller regionals to fold or merge in the next two years.

Air Traffic Controllers – Leadership at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association(NATCA) is between a rock and a hard place right now. As John Carr was exiting stage right from that union’s leadership office last year, FAA imposed work rules that have returned this job to the early days of an even more militaristic way of life, if that’s possible.

The reason is simple. FAA administrator Marion Blakey uses the same strategy on FAA employees that the White House has elsewhere in the world. “We don’t negotiate. We just need to show you that we’re meaner and tougher than you.”

Unfortunately, NATCA has been powerless to effect any change. The union says they still have a contract in place, while FAA management relentlessly reminds the union that the contract negotiation boat sailed last year and NATCA wasn’t on it.

While everyone is waiting to see who the White House names to replace the outgoing Blakey, the wait for controllers is likely to be a long one since the chances of Mr. Bush and DOT Secretary Peters replacing Blakey with someone sympathetic to controllers is slim to none. And the new administrator will be around for a long time to come. Intervention by Congress is also highly unlikely while they try to figure out what to do in the Middle East.

But unlike the airline pilots, air traffic controllers can’t strike. So even if NATCA did have a leader more militant than John Carr to keep pace with the union energy building in other parts of the industry, he or she could do little more than beg. For now and for some time in the future, bargaining with air traffic controllers is going to remain only a great idea.

Mechanics and Flight Attendants – These folks don’t get nearly as much press as do controllers and pilots. But mechanics and flight attendants are actually some of the most militant of all the aviation labor groups. Look back to the half dozen or so major industry job actions this decade and you’ll find the people behind them are members of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

Others in the industry would do well to watch these folks for direction.

Corporate Pilots and Flight Instructors – Most corporate pilots are compensated well enough that they don’t care about unions or job actions. That’s why this segment of the industry is so highly sought after these days. Many biz av jobs are worth more than an airline job.

Flight instructors are now and always have been their own worst enemy. Most are willing to work for dogmeat wages under almost any conditions to build the flight time they need to move up the ladder. Until they are willing to step up to the plate, this won’t change. As one flight school owner told me once, “I don’t pay my instructors more because I don’t have to.”

Additional fallout from the flight training problem is that this segment is the gatekeeper for the future of the industry. Without enough pilots, there will be quite a few more cancelled flights down the road.

Good Bye Marion

Since our administrator is on the way out, it would be unkind of me to claim that she’s done no good at all during her tenure. I just don’t happen to agree with most of her decisions, like her little scare speech to the public this past week explaining how much worse things could have been this summer in the airline world without her and her senior team on the job.

This user fee plan that the airlines and the FAA have cooked up has not gone away and won’t for some time to come. And how is FAA planning to pay for that fat $1.8 billion ADS-B contract they awarded this week anyway?

Little business jets again attempt to push big important airliners out of their way at a major airport.

Finally, before I get yelled at for being too narrow minded, let me say I don’t place any blame for the state of our system on the rank and file people who take home FAA paychecks every two weeks.

Those people on the front lines are simply too far removed from the decision-making process.

And for what it is worth, rank and file does NOT include first line supervisors at FAA and above. From what I hear lately, those people have lost their minds.

But I also believe that just like I believe that the airline industry model we’ve all become used to is broken and will eventually change because it must, I think the model of labor relations between big business and within the government will change as well. It must or this industry is headed for more chaos than anyone believes possible.

I also don’t expect any real change before a new president takes office in 2008. A Democrat might be a good stick to whack the FAA with although that agency has proven to be almost impervious to intervention, even by the spineless group of people we elected to Congress. This, of course, assumes the Democrats don’t blow the advantage they have from the last election. If Democratic results over the past 10 months are any indication however, they just might.

If you think that individuals don’t have a dog in this fight and can’t make a difference, however, I’ll tell you that you’re selling yourself and everyone else you work with down the river.

I’d also refer you to some of the early works of Sam Gompers, the first president of the AFL-CIO.

Happy Labor Day everyone.

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2 Responses to “In Aviation, Every Day is Labor Day”

  1. Mal Gormley Says:

    Well said, Robert. As the social/wealth chasm ever widens, I think the pendulum swinging in favor of greater union strength & effectiveness.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Pendulum is an intersting sign. That of course means we are doomed to repeat the same path over and over, like our boom or bust.

    There must be a better way.

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