Because of the numerous conflicts among airlines and unions - and the emotion - this might be the summer that the flying public will "fly the grumpy skies."
That's not to say flying will be unsafe or employees won't do their jobs. Even the angriest unions don't suggest they would compromise safety. And while airlines have annoyed customers with fees for everything from checked baggage to boxed lunches, they have been more on time and better handlers of luggage than in a long time, according to federal statistics.
"The professionals who work for our members put the safe transport of customers first, as evidenced by the metrics that matter most to customers - record on-time performance and baggage delivery - that has improved consistently for the past eight months," said Jean Medina, spokeswoman for industry trade group Airlines for America. "There is no reason to expect customers will be affected by contract negotiations."
But this summer, many airline employees will attempt to maintain their professionalism against a backdrop of strained and uncertain contract negotiations.
A notable exception among the majors is Delta Air Lines, which has only one major union, for pilots. Delta struck what experts call an industry-leading deal with pilots June 29 after a scant two months of negotiations.
Delta's deal ratchets up the urgency for other airlines to strike similar accords, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. "That puts a lot of pressure on the other airlines," said Harteveldt, who characterized the Delta deal as favorable for both sides. "The unions are going to look at Delta now and say, 'That's pretty good. How are you going to get us parity to that?' "
Here, briefly, is where three major airlines stand with labor groups.
UNITED CONTINENTAL HOLDINGS: Following the merger of United and Continental, CEO Jeff Smisek said he wanted contract negotiations completed by the end of 2011. More than half a year after that deadline, the merged airline still has no joint contracts with its major employee unions. With no joint contracts, it can't mix its onboard personnel, namely pilots and flight attendants, or even schedule a United pilot to fly a plane formerly owned by Continental, for example. Until it completes those contracts and gains efficiencies from mixing crews and aircraft, it won't achieve the $1 billion to $1.2 billion in merger savings it cited when the merger was announced.
US Airways, seven years after its merger with America West Airlines, still hasn't combined pilot and flight attendant crews. "US Airways is the poster child for a merger that has not realized all the efficiencies it could," Harteveldt said.
To be fair, United had to wait for some groups to determine what union would represent them, and the airline has reached interim deals with subsets of employees. For example, it reached separate deals for former Continental flight attendants and former United attendants as a prelude to reaching a joint agreement with both.
United and Continental pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association International and are the most aggressive of the employee groups. Longtime United pilots, in particular, are frustrated at the slow pace of negotiations, eager to get out of their post-9/11 bankruptcy-era contract that slashed average pay by about 40 percent.
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