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May 02, 2003
Airline Perks Flying into the Sunset

With their industry losing billions of dollars in the past two years, airline unions have been forced to accept steep cuts not just in pay, but also in their once-cushy work rules, according to The New York Times.

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The rules and benefits established over the last two decades included a requirement that pilots work no more than 80 hours in the cockpit during an entire month; additional time had to be spent on other duties. Mechanics, meanwhile, were paid for waving planes away from gates. Flight attendants got to stay in luxury hotels.

Nowadays, the Times reports, the major airlines are revamping their rules to bring them in line with profitable airlines like Southwest and JetBlue.

"What we've got now is a system that's significantly more competitive and frankly makes a lot more sense," said Jerrold A. Glass, the senior vice president for employee relations at US Airways.

The airlines' employee unions see things differently. The attack on work rules strikes at the heart of their strength, and losing those rules is viewed within the labor movement as further erosion of the unions' sway, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

"These are things built over time, and once you go after them, then everything is open," he told the Times.

This week, United Airlines' employees are voting on a six-and-a-half-year contract that Glenn F. Tilton, the chief executive of United's parent, the UAL Corporation, called critical to the airline's future. The Times notes that United's pilots have already granted $1.1 billion in givebacks over that same period.

Northwest Airlines is joining the fray too. It has told its employees it wants $1 billion a year in concessions, including sweeping work-rule changes, by July 1, and has issued proposals to each of its major unions.

Northwest is not in as bad shape financially as its rivals; United, for instance, already has filed for bankruptcy. But after watching those airlines successfully, if not harmoniously, roll back work rules, Northwest CEO Richard H. Anderson has raised the prospect of a Chapter 11 filing if his airline cannot get the concessions it seeks.

"They're coming to us and asking us to undo 25 years of negotiating," said Mollie Reiley, a veteran of three decades at the airline and trustee for Teamsters Union Local 2000, which represents its flight attendants. "I don't think there's a union in the country that would willingly step up to this."

By far the most significant work-rule change, according to the Times, is the elimination of a practice called "receipt and dispatch," in which only licensed mechanics are allowed to wave planes to or from airport gates, even though baggage handlers and other ground workers could easily do the task.

The practice required the airlines to keep hundreds more mechanics on staff than were needed to fix airplanes. It also meant mechanics, some earning $100,000 a year or more, had to be scheduled to work during the day, although repairs are made mostly at night.

The Times reports that US Airways has eliminated the practice at all but 6 major airports; United wants to end it at 18. In court documents, United estimated that it could eliminate almost 900 jobs if other workers could do the task.


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