Unhappy American Pilots to Push Union Switch After Five Decades

  • Current independent Allied Pilots Association formed in 1963
  • Pilots point to pay that will soon lag behind competitors’

A group of American Airlines Group Inc. pilots is preparing a push to give up their 53-year-old independent union and join the larger Air Line Pilots Association, after peers at rival carriers secured tentative contracts with better pay and benefits.

Resolutions calling for creation of an Allied Pilots Association committee to evaluate the issue will be introduced in at least two pilot bases over the next two weeks, according to interviews with aviators supporting the change. The proposals could go to the union’s board for approval, with the goal of merging APA into ALPA, they said.

Frustration has been building over the past two months among APA members after pilots at Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. agreed to tentative terms that would boost their compensation above that in a contract American aviators reached last year. If Delta pilots approve their accord, a provision in United Continental Holdings Inc.’s labor agreement would increase pay at that carrier to the same rates. United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. aviators also have gained new contracts since last year.

“There’s a well-founded belief that APA, as an independent union, underperforms,” said Mitch Vasin, an American first officer based in Phoenix. “It can’t compete with a national union with the resources and political connections and the size of ALPA. This has been at a simmer, and when the Delta pilots reached their tentative agreement, it turned the heat up a lot.”

‘Simply Unacceptable’

Supporters of the merger also say APA’s structure, with a 22-member board, makes reaching consensus difficult and slows decisions. While ALPA represents Delta, United and FedEx pilots, Southwest and UPS have independent unions similar to APA.

“Our pilot compensation will soon likely rank a distant fifth or sixth in the industry,” APA President Dan Carey told the union board last week. “As the largest pilot group in the world, employed by the most profitable airline in the world, that’s simply unacceptable.”

Carey told members “it’s time to have the debate” about closer ties to the larger union, although he didn’t call for a combination. The two unions have worked together in the past, including APA’s use of an ALPA expert in contract negotiations.

“We believe that all pilots would greatly benefit through single representation,” Tim Canoll, ALPA president, said in an e-mailed statement. “With a strong, unified voice, pilots would be even better positioned to secure valuable improvements to advance our profession and further strengthen aviation safety and security.”

Forgotten Reason

APA represents 15,000 pilots from four carriers that have merged into one since 2001: American, US Airways, America West and TWA. ALPA has more than 54,000 pilots at 31 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. APA split off from ALPA in 1963, and “pretty much everyone has forgotten any reason why,” said Mitch Groder, an American first officer based in Philadelphia.

Some pilots oppose the return to ALPA out of concern that dues would rise and that the bigger national structure is inefficient. Also, the larger union represents regional airline pilots, whose interests don’t always line up with those of the bigger carriers.

Joining ALPA would provide many benefits, advocates say. Besides gaining lobbying clout in Washington on regulatory, safety and security issues, it would give American pilots access to the larger union’s legal, economic, financial and other experts. A stronger ALPA could take on issues like overhauling the federal law governing airline labor and how union contracts are treated in bankruptcy, said Neil Roghair, a former APA vice president who advocated a merger when he left office in February.

American pilots also could influence ALPA, he said in an online posting, noting they would account for more than 20 percent of the combined union’s total membership.

“The debate ought to happen,” said Vasin, the American first officer. “If it doesn’t go through, at a bare minimum we can identify things that can be changed at APA to make it better.”

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