Sky Talk

Contract talks drag on for American Airlines mechanics

American Airlines workers under a Boeing 787-8 in a maintenance hanger at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.
American Airlines workers under a Boeing 787-8 in a maintenance hanger at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

More than three years after American Airlines merged with US Airways, thousands of workers who fix the Fort Worth-based airline’s planes still don’t have a joint contract.

The 10,000 employees in what’s known as the maintenance and related workgroup, including mechanics, store clerks who handle parts and inspectors, are represented by the TWU-IAM Association and have been in contract talks with American management since December 2015.

Although some progress has been made, the two sides have yet to discuss big issues such as pay and work rules.

“I tell the mechanics when I get out in the operation, I want this as bad as you do,” said David Seymour, American’s senior vice president for integrated operations. “We are striving as best as we can to go get it done.”

While an interim agreement last fall gave mechanics substantial pay increases and a profit-sharing plan was instituted, workers are increasingly frustrated that they don’t have a new contract.

“I hear almost daily that the company is making record profits on our backs,” said Rollie Reaves, president of TWU Local 567, which represents mechanics at the Dallas/Fort Worth overall maintenance hangar. “The company is doing better than they have ever done so they’re frustrated with the pace of the negotiations.”

Contract talks been hampered by the complexities of working with two unions and trying to reconcile language from two different contracts. Management and union negotiators are meeting two to three times a month, passing proposals back and forth on various parts of the contract. However, TWU Local 591 President Gary Peterson said the company’s proposals are often disappointing and don’t match what senior executives have told mechanics about how they will benefit from the merger.

“For the leadership team to come out in front of the employees and say we want to give you the best contract in the industry, all we expect is to see a proposal that is industry-leading and we’re not seeing that,” said Peterson, who represents 4,700 line maintenance workers at airports across the U.S. “It’s time to get together and get the agreement done.”

What took so long

Pilots, flight attendants and passenger service agents all reached new contracts with American in 2015. But the Fort Worth-based carrier’s two largest work groups — the maintenance and related group and fleet service — didn’t even have their first negotiating session until December 2015.

Part of the delay was due to the necessity of the National Mediation Board having to certify the alliance of the Transport Workers Union and International Association of Machinists, which represented workers at the two airlines before the merger. Until the certification was completed in May 2015, American could not start talks with the union that represented the mechanics. The Association then spent the rest of the year putting together negotiating committees.

Once the two sides got to the table, combining contract language from the legacy US Airways mechanics and American maintenance groups took longer than expected. Unlike a typical contract negotiation where the two sides are making changes to an existing contract, Seymour said a lot of time has been spent working on nuanced contract language such as work classifications.

“There are differences, honestly, within how we handle things differently between the line [maintenance] and the base [maintenance],” Seymour said. “There are times when you’re not just looking at TWU, IAM. They look at the world differently and that creates a complexity that I don’t think anybody anticipated.”

Reaves, who joined the negotiations process in September, said he was surprised that more progress had not been made in the past fifteen months. Items such as vacations, holidays and mandatory overtime are still open and it feels as if sometimes no ground has been gained, he said.

“I kind of had a preconceived notion that it would go a little smoother than it has,” Reaves said. “We are hung up on issues that I didn’t perceive would be an issue.”

Some progress

To date, the two sides have tentatively agreed to over two dozen contract articles including rules covering sick leave, shift swaps and uniforms.

And last August, management and the unions reached an interim agreement that gave mechanics pay raises ranging from 15 to 36 percent along with a lump sum payment. Ground workers received pay raises around 24 percent as part of the deal.

“We recognized as a leadership team back in the late summer, between the mechanics and the fleet group, those are the two large groups that have not benefited financially from the merger,” Seymour said.

In exchange for the pay raises, the unions agreed to allow American management to implement cross-utilization. For example, American mechanics at D/FW Airport could now work on a legacy US Airways aircraft and vice versa. Prior to that, American mechanics could only work on legacy American aircraft.

“There was a piece that was good for the company and a piece that was good for the membership and to me, that’s how negotiations should work,” said Peterson, adding that the current contract talks feel less collaborative and are getting more contentious.

Talks are scheduled to resume on March 27 in Washington, D.C.

Pay, benefits, work rules

With most of the smaller contractual items completed, management and union negotiators are preparing to tackle pay, benefits and work rules, areas that are usually the most contentious.

With American earning billions in profits, the union negotiators feel that they should be able to gain back some of the pay and benefits that were lost when American and US Airways went through bankruptcy. Some point to actions taken more than a decade ago when American’s unions agreed to concessions to stay out of bankruptcy.

“We’re asking to untangle some of the mess we’ve had to deal with since 2003 when the concessionary contract started,” said Dale Danker, president of TWU Local 514, representing workers at the Tulsa maintenance base. “They’ll give us a higher wage as long as we don’t want to argue” about other issues.

The mechanics union is also concerned about the level of outsourcing American management wants to keep in the contract. Each legacy airline contract had varying degrees of line or heavy overhaul maintenance outsourced. And when American announced plans to build a maintenance hangar in Brazil, union leaders became concerned about how much work the carrier plans to perform there. On Saturday, the union filed a grievance against American, saying the work in Brazil violates its existing contract.

Seymour said that American does not plan to fly aircraft to Brazil simply for maintenance work. Rather, aircraft that are already scheduled on routes to Brazil typically spend 10 to 12 hours on the ground between flights when routine maintenance is performed.

“The Brazil hangar is literally to build a structure around work that is already being done down there,” Seymour said in response to union concerns. “It is line maintenance work only. It’s not heavy maintenance.”

Since American already shut down its heavy maintenance base at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth as part of bankruptcy restructuring in 2013 and outsourced that work to a third-party contractor in China, union leaders said they want to make sure the mechanics currently employed at American are protected and their jobs aren’t sent overseas.

“If we don’t toe the line on doing landing gear, avionics … they will simply send it out and get rid of it,” Danker said. “I’ve got to make sure my membership will be around for another contract.”

Local union leaders say management has promised an industry-leading contract and they believe their members deserve to get paid more than United and Delta mechanics, who are scheduled to receive pay raises that leapfrog them above American’s pay.

Seymour agrees that the contract should be industry-leading, but it’s difficult to negotiate each individual contract article better than the competitors. American already performs more of its own heavy maintenance work than Delta, United or Southwest Airlines.

“What we’re talking about is an industry-leading contract overall in terms of the overall economics,” Seymour said. “We don’t want any jobs lost and we are committed to that.”

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk


American Airlines flight attendants: "Love AAfair is over!"