Split among US Airways pilots divides the company

PHOENIX -- The presidential campaign, long by most standards, was decided in less time. So were four World Series and the fate of several storied financial firms.

Efforts to unite the 5,000 pilots from America West and US Airways, critical to combining the airlines' operations, are going on 3 1/2 years and counting. Resolution does not appear to be around the corner.

Pilots from each side are locked in a bitter battle about seniority. That is the ranking system that determines a pilot's pick of flights, vacation time, promotion track and more.

The pilots from the old US Airways — the East pilots in geographical shorthand — want the merged list to be based on date of hire and have gone so far as to toss out the airline's incumbent union in their pursuit. They say their side of the business is the profit center.

The West pilots, who have long believed America West saved bankrupt US Airways, favor the merged seniority list issued by a federal arbitrator last year after weeks of testimony from both sides.

It puts the most senior US Airways pilots at the top of the list, those furloughed at the time of the merger at the bottom and a proportionate blend of the others in the middle. Pilots say the former union's merger policy dictates that the arbitrated list is final and binding.

Recent layoffs after dramatic cuts to the number of flights have only deepened the divide.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Courtroom 504 in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in late October.

On one side: a standing-room-only crowd of former America West pilots. They were supporting a group of co-workers suing the new union and the company to stop the layoffs.

They say they unfairly bore the brunt of cutbacks because there is still no joint contract or merged seniority list, and they argued that the union is ignoring their interests.

On the other: the airline's top in-house attorney and other company officials, union representatives and overflow from the America West side. The company argued that it followed current union contracts and policies put in place after the merger and noted that America West was disproportionately hit hard because of heavy flight cutbacks at its Las Vegas hub.

The union defended its bid for date of hire and said that it has provisions that would protect America West pilots for 10 years, once approved. It said the arbitrated seniority list could be revisited because it was a proposal and not part of a new contract.

When a USAPA official testified that the group represents all the pilots of US Airways, both East and West, there were sneers from the America West pilots in the audience.

At one point in the day-long hearing, Judge Neil Wake remarked, "There's a lot of moving parts here."

The company clearly saw potential trouble ahead when the merger was announced in May 2005 and tried to head it off in a memo to employees of America West and US Airways.

"Dragging seniority integration out for an unnecessarily long period of time is not in anyone's best interest," the memo from America West CEO Doug Parker and US Airways CEO Bruce Lakefield read.

In a recent interview, Parker, CEO of the new US Airways, said that he believes the seniority issue "will sort itself out," allowing the two sides to negotiate a joint contract.

He wouldn't hazard a guess as to when.

"It's something that I would very much like to get resolved," he said.

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