Warring US Airways and America West pilots have the merged company in a real tailspin
David Braid doesn't look like a gangster.
A pilot for US Airways, Braid has the friendly demeanor and wholesome blondness common to many Midwesterners — it's no surprise to learn that he hails from Michigan. Now living in Mesa, the 46-year-old seems about as nice, and low-key, as they come.
If you believe his own union, though, David Braid is part of a vast, vicious conspiracy. In fact, the union has sued him and a host of his fellow pilots under the very laws that were used to stop the Gambino crime family and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club — the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO. The union's suit, filed in federal court in North Carolina this May, alleges that Braid and a bevy of his fellow pilots have engaged in extortion and a "concerted campaign of sabotage."
Reading that, you might picture slashed tires. Or threats in the cockpit. Perhaps it even brings to mind the pilots who nearly flew drunk a few years back. At minimum, you'd think of a group of conspirators, plotting in smoke-filled rooms (or airport lounges, in these smoke-free days).
But here's what David Braid stands accused of doing.
He posted one message on an anti-union Internet bulletin board. And it was about as unexciting as it gets — in it, he urged his fellow pilots to call the union's toll-free information line. No joke: We're talking about one message that didn't use foul language, post anyone's personal information, or call for illegal behavior. At the time, Braid had never even met many of the pilots he was accusing of conspiring with — some of whom also did nothing more than post a few innocuous comments online.
His lawyer, Patrick Van Zanen, says the lawsuit is ludicrous. "To take a guy who makes one posting, and lump him up in some kind of conspiracy of extortion . . . that's just ridiculous."
But that's US Airways these days. Three years after America West and US Airways "merged" to form the nation's sixth-largest carrier, its pilots are less united than ever. Pilots from the old US Airways have now formed a new, independent union — but even though pilots from the old America West are required to pay it dues, they believe the new union has done its best to disenfranchise them entirely.
America West pilots have fought back. Their US Airways counterparts have accused them of everything from mailing dog feces to union headquarters to hanging a noose in an airplane cockpit to making thousands of prank phone calls. Not surprisingly, the two groups aren't even close to a common contract.
Now, there's no need to cash in your frequent flyer miles and book a train: The infighting at US Airways will not affect your safety. But for the 5,000 pilots who count on the Tempe-based airline for their paycheck, the situation is incredibly frustrating.
Thanks to the merger, some pilots will have to be demoted. The question of who that should be — guys who've been laid off for years from the old US Airways, or the younger pilots at America West — has led to some pilots taking extreme positions and refusing to budge.
The situation isn't likely to change anytime soon. Thanks to high fuel prices, the perennially precarious airline industry is in a serious state of contraction. No one can afford to walk away; no one sees an influx of more routes and more jobs on the near horizon.
The pilots are locked into a bitter battle. And the casualties are guys like David Braid: pilots who want nothing more than to keep the status they've accrued over years of flying but have been forced to hire lawyers just to defend their right to free speech.
Three years ago this month, Virginia-based US Airways merged with Tempe's America West. But what was quickly made official on paper has proved much more complicated in reality.
Pre-merger, the companies had little geographic overlap. US Airways had hubs in Charlotte and Philadelphia; its routes were based almost entirely in the East. America West, with hubs in Phoenix and Las Vegas, flew mostly in the West.
They also had markedly different cultures.
US Airways was older, more traditional and — like many older, traditional airlines — more screwed-up. Founded by the DuPont family in the 1930s, it became US Air in 1979 following deregulation and then, finally, US Airways a couple of decades after that. But though it survived merger after merger and recession after recession, it never actually thrived. At the time merger discussions began with America West in 2005, US Airways had lost $3.4 billion in four years, and filed for Chapter 11 protection twice.
As for America West, well, in 2005 you couldn't say it was in great shape. But by the standards of the perpetually beleaguered airline industry, it was at least stayin' alive.
The low-cost, low-frills airline, which started in Phoenix in the early 1980s, initially grew rapidly. There was a bankruptcy in 1990, but the company reorganized and managed to avoid subsequent filings. Its pre-merger losses were in the millions — which, unfortunately, are pretty typical for an airline.
But the biggest difference between the two airlines was workforce. The US Airways guys are, generally, much older. Robert W. Mann, an airline analyst and consultant, says that endless financial problems, particularly those following 9/11, led to 1,691 of its 5,000 pilots being "furloughed." That's airline-speak for laid off, yet still on the company's roster, in case the situation were to improve.
At the time of the merger with America West, US Airways hadn't hired a new pilot in 17 years. And, virtually every US Airways pilot who'd been hired since 1987 was stuck on furlough, Mann says. Most had been on the list long enough to find other jobs. Some had landed jobs at JetBlue — or even America West.
America West was growing. Since its inception in the 1980s, it had grown to 1,894 pilots. None were on furlough at the time of the merger.
Because the airline was still relatively young, few America West pilots could match the US Airways pilots when it came to years of service. In fact, if you drew up a combined seniority list, based strictly on original date of hire, 900 US Airways pilots would predate America West's oldest veteran.
That's been the epicenter of the new airline's post-merger drama. The mounting anger between the two groups of pilots, the RICO suit, even the allegations of dog feces in the mail stem from controversy over the seniority list.
But while the arguments have become petty, the issues are not.
At an airline, everything depends on seniority. Pilots work as a "first officer" for years just to earn captain status — which comes with not only the right to command your own plane but a big pay raise. And with a limited number of jets in the fleet, there's room for only so many captains. (Not to mention, for a pilot, a good schedule is paramount — and the more seniority you have, the better your options.)
If all the furloughed US Airways pilots were allowed to return to active duty as captains, they'd bump the younger captains at America West back down to first officer. If more furloughs were needed, too, the America West guys would be on the chopping block.
The America West pilots didn't think it was fair. Why should they suddenly be in a precarious place, just because their company had absorbed a troubled competitor?
"Everybody saw this as a problem," confirms CJ Szmal, an America West pilot and, at the time of the merger, a union officer. "It's nuclear fusion, it's mushroom cloud stuff. It's the most volatile thing in the world — pilot seniority."
The airline did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.
The CEOs of the two airlines agreed to become one in September 2005. They kept the US Airways name, the old America West headquarters in Tempe, and America West CEO Doug Parker as their new boss.
After that, it was left to the union chapters representing the East pilots (the older, partially furloughed guys) and the West pilots (the younger, America West ones) to merge into a single unit with a new, combined seniority list. Only after that could they begin negotiating a new contract.
Three years later, they haven't begun to talk about a contract. Seniority has been too great a minefield.
The West guys argue that it can't simply be a matter of date-of-hire: If so, a thousand of them would end up junior to guys who hadn't been working in the industry for years. But the East guys argue that it has to be — and can only be — date-of-hire.
The two pilots groups have been so far apart on the issue that they hired a mediator to help them talk then serve as an impartial arbiter when mediation failed. George Nicolau, who's worked for both the airline industry and Major League Baseball, was suggested by the East pilots. When the West pilots acquiesced, both sides agreed that his verdict would be final and binding.
For 18 days, Nicolau listened to testimony from both sets of pilots. It soon became clear, West pilots say, that the East-based pilots were unwilling to negotiate. It was date-of-hire or nothing.
Mann, who assisted the West pilots during previous merger talks and during the seniority negotiations, was stunned by the East pilots' attitude. "I've done a lot of these," he says. "And this was just the most extreme intransigence I've ever seen."
In May 2007, Nicolau issued his decree on how seniority should be handled. Suffice it to say, it wasn't based strictly on date-of-hire; he'd crafted a compromise that weighed a host of factors.
That should have been it; the two parties had agreed at the beginning that the Nicolau award was to be binding, final, and all those words that mean it can't be challenged or changed or compromised.
The East pilots, though, had other plans.
Screw the "binding" bit. Surely, it applied only to the union that had agreed to arbitration.
What if they were to start a new union? Then, surely, Nicolau wouldn't count.
Then they could start from scratch.
In early 2008, the pilots at US Airways began to campaign for the creation of a new union.
Arnie Gentilly, a 24-year veteran of US Airways, says that the pilots didn't decide to head out on their own just because they hated the Nicolau award. They'd been frustrated for years, he says. After the company filed for bankruptcy in 2003, the pilots had agreed to an awful contract just to stay in business, with a 53 percent pay cut and incredibly onerous working hours.
Now they were being asked to play a junior role to pilots with less experience?
"The Nicolau award was the straw that broke the camel's back," Gentilly admits.
The West guys say they, too, had their complaints about Nicolau's award. "Nobody on our side was happy with it," says Braid, a pilot who came up through the America West system. "They're calling him 'St. Nick,' like he gave us a gift." Not so, Braid says — it's more that the West pilots understood the process had been fair, that no one was going to get everything they wanted. Unlike the East guys, they'd come in knowing that they'd have to compromise.
Plus, there was the principle of the thing.
"We knew whatever [Nicolau] came out with, we had to live with," says fellow West pilot Szmal. "We took that chance."
Unfortunately for the West pilots, though, they'd be forced to join the new union whether they wanted to or not.
In the airline industry, unions are optional. It's called an "agency shop." If you want to work as a pilot, you are required to pay union dues.
And because there were twice as many East pilots, as long as they stood united, they didn't really need a single West pilot's support to break away — and require the West guys to pay dues to an organization that had been formed, in essence, to screw them over.
The East guys selling the new union made just one trip to Phoenix to discuss their plans — an effort they quickly abandoned under intense questioning from West pilots. The meeting is enshrined in a series of 15 YouTube videos, titled "Can't Take the Heat." (Some of the videos have been viewed more than 4,000 times.)
Already, West pilots were convinced they were getting the shaft. Several made it clear that they would not pay dues, or participate, in the new union.
"I believe [forming a new union] is the quickest way to a new contract — and, eventually, unity," one of the East pilots told the assembled pilots.
"Never!" the West pilots cried. "No way!"
"Now," the East pilot continued, "Many of you have told us that you prefer anarchy, and you will not pay dues to us, and you'll undermine us."
"You're undermining ALPA," one West pilot angrily retorted.
"You're fundamentally undermining us!" another shouted.
Toward the end of the meeting, a West pilot asked what would happen if the West pilots refuse to pay dues to the new union. Sure, technically, they could get fired. But, the pilot asked, "Would you think that [US Airways CEO] Doug Parker would just fire 1,800 pilots? Would they lay us off?"
"They could," the would-be union leader replied.
The union organizers had originally planned to stay until 4 p.m., but the meeting grew so toxic, they left more than two hours early.
"What about a closing statement?" one West pilot called as they prepared to go. "Tell us why I need to vote for you."
"Are you guys going to walk out?" another West pilot shouted.
"Sorry, guys," the East pilot said.
"It's not four o'clock yet!" a West pilot shouted.
A few weeks later, U.S. Airlines Pilot Association, or USAPA, was voted in as the official representative of all US Airways pilots. The East pilots had won.
But that didn't mean the West guys were about to roll over.
You have to be careful while reading the new union's RICO suit against the West-based pilots. After all, this is a lawsuit that accuses a bunch of respected pilots of extortion — then offers absolutely no evidence to back up the claim.
What is clear from the suit, however, is that in the three months since USAPA took over as the bargaining agent for US Airways pilots, a tense situation has flared into open warfare, with plenty of bad blood on both sides.
The USAPA guys put up a toll-free line for pilots to get information from union leadership, at no cost. But the America West pilots knew that "no cost" to them could mean "big cost" to the start-up union.
According to the suit, the West pilots began flooding the line in hopes of bankrupting the "scab" union. In one month's time, the line received a whopping 13,986 calls. And it was pretty clear that guys weren't just calling to get information: One guy, a pilot in Dayton, made 393 calls in a one-week period. Another guy, based in Phoenix, rang up a staggering 1,481 calls over two weeks.
The West pilots openly bragged about their shenanigans.
"I took some advice from another thread and called their hotline," one pilot wrote on a West-controlled message board in April. "I did some research, and it costs them seven cents a minute. After 9 p.m., cell phone usage is free and I can run two lines at once, plus my home phone . . . Oh, yeah, and I passed some pay phones, dialed it, and left. So, just today, I probably cost them an easy $30 to $40. If we all do this . . . holy crap!"
Then came the prank calls.
"Hey scab," one pilot said on the voice mail of a union officer. "Get ready to bend over and take Nicolau!"
The lawsuit claims that a doll labeled "USAPA" was found hanging from a noose in a US Airways cockpit. At least two envelopes containing feces showed up in the new union's post office box. One guy who considered running for USAPA leadership, according to the suit, had personal information posted on a Web site controlled by the America West pilots. (He ultimately decided not to run.)
Then there was the jump-seat issue.
Pilots have a way of hitching a free ride home, or to their next destination, that depends on the kindness of colleagues. If a pilot is so inclined, he can let a visiting pilot join him in the cockpit's jump seat.
But as the merger soured, some West pilots decided there was too much tension between the two groups — no more jump seat rides for their East counterparts.
Admittedly, they also tried to get pilots from other unions to join them in exiling the breakaway union's pilots.
"They are the pariahs of the industry," one West pilot wrote on a message board. "Frankly, I think it is unsafe to have them on our jumps. They've made their bed, now they get to lie in it."
Finally, there was the money issue.
As a start-up union with few resources, USAPA was dependent on dues from all its members. But — even though they are required by law to contribute — some West pilots decided to say no. The union was formed to screw them, they reasoned. Why finance their own demise?
"Eighteen-hundred guys and gals standing on principle and refusing to pay an organization founded for and dedicated to the destruction of their careers?" one pilot wrote on the West message board. "I say let them try to fire 1,800 pilots."
Within one month, the union claims, it lost $298,000 in prospective dues.
But rather than hunker down and ride out the losses, or try to compromise with the West pilots, the union made an unusual decision. It decided to sue a dozen West pilots in federal court — for extortion, running a criminal enterprise, and nine other counts.
Gentilly, vice chairman for US Airways' newly formed pilots union, says that East pilots knew West pilots were unhappy with the new structure. They weren't surprised to hear grumbling.
But they were shocked at how nasty the West guys got.
"We were surprised by what we're alleging is criminal activity," he says. "We were definitely surprised that professional pilots would turn to alleged criminal activity, absolutely."
It had been a rough year for Ron Gabaldon.
The 56-year-old pilot and his wife had long been caregivers for her elderly parents, and in March 2008, her father passed away after a long illness. There was exhaustion; there were a zillion details to take care of; there was grief. It took two months for the couple, who live in Phoenix, to feel that they were getting back to normal.
Then came the lawsuit.
On June 2, Ron landed a flight at the Sacramento airport and, like any traveler these days, turned on his cell phone before he'd even exited the aircraft. On his voice mail was an urgent message from a fellow pilot. A lawsuit had been filed in North Carolina — and Gabaldon was being accused of defamation, tortious interference, conspiracy, and racketeering.
What did he do?
He posted a single message on a Web board frequented by America West pilots.
"I will not allow any scab to ride in my jump seat (in the interest of safety)," Gabaldon had written in April. "I'm networking with all my [union] friends at other carriers to put forth motions . . . to deny jump seats to all [pilots at the former US Airways]."
Gabaldon is one of the older pilots to come out of the America West system. Before he took a job there, he says, he'd been in the U.S. Air Force for seven years and then worked for Eastern Airlines.
He resents the East pilots' claims that America West pilots are all young punks. "We are as equal in our experience," he says. "And our safety record is bar none."
Gabaldon was hit hard by the suit. At first, told about it from his breathless friend in the Sacramento airport, he thought it was a joke: Conspiracy? He hadn't even been active in union politics. He'd never met most of his supposed co-conspirators.
He was so rattled that he asked his first officer to handle the route back to Phoenix. "I needed to concentrate on what I was going to say to my wife," he says. "It was just exhausting to care for her dad and mom — and now another battle to be confronted with . . . When I told her, she got this distinct look, like the life had been sucked out of her."
David Braid remembers a similar feeling when he learned he'd been named in the suit. Braid had made a single post in April regarding the toll-free hotline, noting the irony of the union complaining bitterly about pilots flooding their toll-free line with calls, even as it sent out a message urging membership to "call often to stay informed."
Braid wrote, "Look, they said it again. 'Call often to stay informed.' Reach out and call from every pay phone you see . . . They said to call."
Thanks to the work of the lawyers representing pilots from the old America West, Patrick Van Zanen and Mike Kitchen of Margrave Celmins, the federal judge in North Carolina quickly dismissed the RICO suit just two months after it was filed.
Even if what the union alleged were true, wrote U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger, the claims simply didn't rise to the level of extortion — or an organized conspiracy.
"There is no basis for finding the threat of continued criminal activity that is necessary to establish a 'pattern of racketeering activity' in this case," he wrote.
The union is appealing. It could also re-file some less-serious claims — prank calls, jamming the toll-free line — in state court.
"We're just asking these guys to come forward and pay what they owe" in union dues, says Gentilly. "And if they throw in a little for court costs, and promise not to do it again, that would be it.
"We've asked that, but I don't believe there were any takers."
The West pilots are now trying to figure out their options. Can they somehow get out from under USAPA and get real labor representation? Could they somehow force US Airways to accept the Nicolau award?
It's not a great situation. Gas prices have sent the airlines into yet another tailspin, and pilots are being furloughed again. Without a seniority list, the America West crew is facing the brunt of the cuts. Many furloughed pilots from US Airways were brought back to work while the economy was good, but now it's the newest pilots — America West guys — who are considered to have the lowest seniority and who are being laid off.
Really, both East and West pilots have been hurt by the impasse. Forget the anger, forget legal fees — it affects every pilot at US Airways that they can't begin to negotiate a new contract until they have a seniority list.
That hurts the West pilots, who were due to start working on a new contract more than two years ago. But, even more than that, it hurts the East pilots.
They agreed to their last contract while they were in bankruptcy. Analysts say the contract is one of the worst in the airline industry.
But until they hash out their union problems, they simply can't begin negotiating with US Airways brass.
These guys could have had raises three years ago," says Mann, the airline consultant. "They would have, overall, benefited from an integrated list." He adds, "You can cut off your nose to spite your face so badly that no amount of Botox can fix it."
There may be good reason that US Airways hasn't forced the two warring sides to the table. "From the company's perspective, it saves them money every month this goes on," Mann notes. It's the pilots who are suffering.
Pilot CJ Szmal agrees.
"This shows how bad it can get when pilots start fighting other pilots," he says. "I'm just floored that we are in this mess. And I don't see any end in sight."
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