Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Author: Mike Norman

Wm. David Gahr, an American Airlines flight attendant who lives in Hollywood, Fla., seethed when he read about last week’s meeting of the Star-Telegram Editorial Board, the CEO of US Airways and top officials of American’s three largest unions.

In 2001, Gahr says, he had built up 25 years’ seniority as a flight attendant with Trans World Airlines. He lost all of it when Fort Worth-based American bought St. Louis-based TWA, which was then in bankruptcy. American’s flight attendant union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, refused to integrate the TWA attendants into its seniority list.

What steamed Gahr when he read about the editorial board meeting was the part when Laura Glading, president of the APFA, said her union made a mistake on TWA.

“Ms. Glading failed to mention that the ‘mistake’ cost all the former TWA flight attendants their job, many with 25 to 40 years of service, while those with only two days at American kept their positions,” Gahr wrote in an e-mail to the editorial board. “The apology falls short largely due to the fact that she makes no attempt to resolve the ‘mistake.'”

To this day, many of the TWA attendants have not been able to resume their careers, he said. Those who did get work with American “are still at the bottom of the seniority list and will be the first to go in any downsizing.”

One of the not-so-proud legacies of airline deregulation, approved by Congress in 1978 and phased into effect by the end of 1984, was this problem with integrating employee seniority lists after mergers. It has often flared into bitter disputes and lawsuits between employee groups, including those at American.

As you can tell, it’s still an issue for the former TWA flight attendants, whom Glading said were “stapled at the bottom” of the seniority list at American. Former TWA pilots are still in open warfare with the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s pilots.

The issue threatens to flare again as American’s unions push for a merger between US Airways and now-bankrupt American. Union leaders hope to avoid a problem this time around, ironically with the help of a federal law passed in 2007 after intense lobbying from former TWA employees.

The law, introduced by Missouri Sens. Claire McCaskill and Christopher Bond, requires airlines that survive a merger to resolve seniority disputes through negotiations among employee groups if possible or through binding arbitration if necessary.

In the finest “everything old is new again” irony, all McCaskill and Bond did was reinstate the way the old Civil Aeronautics Board handled such labor issues before deregulation.

If I were running American’s unions (I can hear them laughing), I wouldn’t place so much faith in McCaskill-Bond. For one thing, US Airways and America West unions are still locked in seniority disputes from the 2005 merger between those carriers. For flight attendants, integrating two feuding labor groups on the US Airways-America West side with two on the American-TWA side could be troublesome even if the law works perfectly. It’s the same for pilots.

And there have been legal fights over just how McCaskill-Bond is supposed to work, notably over how an airline is supposed to fulfill its role in getting separate labor groups to agree.

Glading told the editorial board she hopes the flight attendant seniority lists can be integrated by date of hire, no matter which airline did the hiring. Gahr says that’s exactly what the TWA attendants wanted from Glading’s predecessors back in 2001, and they haven’t forgotten.

“How long does Ms. Glading expect the former TWA flight attendants to pay for [her union’s] ‘mistake?'” he asks.

I don’t think Gahr is going to quietly accept being at the back of the line again.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram / Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County. Twitter: @mnorman9