Labor issues rampant at major airlines

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CHICAGO -- As airline passengers fly to and from vacations this summer, they might be surprised to know their pilot may not have had a substantial pay raise in nearly a decade, and flight attendants might be seething beneath friendly smiles. And mechanics fixing the plane? They might not be too happy either.

Beneath the bustling daily operations of some of America's largest airlines is an undercurrent of union labor discontent.

American Airlines' parent company AMR Corp. is in bankruptcy and asking for massive cutbacks from its unions. United Airlines has yet to reach joint labor deals with any of its major labor groups following its megamerger with Continental Airlines two years ago. United pilots regularly stage sign-toting protests about not having a new contract.

Even ground workers at Southwest Airlines, which is known for its excellent service, operations and relatively harmonious labor relations, handed out informational leaflets to passengers at Chicago Midway Airport last month. They object to Southwest's plan to outsource some of their jobs to temporary workers.

In the airline industry, ongoing union issues aren't unusual. But so far this summer, a number of contracts at large airlines have reached especially critical stages and have had major developments in recent weeks.

The good news is that conflict between airline management and unions typically doesn't mean bad things for fliers -- until it does.

Short of all-out labor strikes, which nowadays are rare among major carriers, disgruntled union members can cause other headaches for management, and occasionally for airline passengers. If a pilot or flight attendant suddenly "feels ill" just before takeoff, flights can be delayed or canceled, for example. United pilots were sternly warned by their union in recent weeks against misusing sick leave after the airline noted an "abnormally high" rate of such reports.

Customer service also could suffer. "As you can imagine, when your employees are happy or at the very least respected, everybody's happy. We've been miserable for nine years," said Leslie Mayo, spokeswoman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, representing American Airlines flight attendants. "We continue to work as hard as we can to compensate for the lack of support we receive to do our job, but it is getting more and more difficult."

Meanwhile, airline executives are trying to keep a rein on labor costs so they can halt their money-losing ways and break the cycle of recurring bankruptcies.

"I really sense that labor is struggling with the fact that the industry is still in transition and there are still some difficult, emotional issues that need to be negotiated," said Bill Swelbar, an airline industry researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You look at the pilot negotiations at United -- a lot of emotion. Clearly, at American, there's nothing but emotion, but airline employees are a resilient lot."

Mr. Swelbar said the current round of negotiations across the industry is especially difficult because the restructuring that began with many airlines' bankruptcies in the last decade is still unfinished.

Despite the discontent, there is no implication that flying will be unsafe or employees won't do their jobs. Even the angriest unions don't suggest they would compromise safety. And while airlines have annoyed customers with fees for everything from checked baggage to boxed lunches, they have been more on time and better handlers of luggage than in a long time, according to federal statistics.

But this summer, many airline employees will attempt to maintain their professionalism against a backdrop of strained and uncertain contract negotiations.

A notable exception among the majors is Delta Air Lines, which has only one major union, for pilots. Delta struck what experts call an industry-leading deal with pilots June 29 after a scant two months of negotiations.

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