Lean, mean season in the air

Published May 16, 2007

Looking for a silver lining in that big, black cloud looming over your summer travel plans?

Go search somewhere else.

Seems like you can't turn on the TV or open a paper including this one without getting barraged with reasons why this summer might rank among the worst ever for flying.

Airline staffing is lean. Record numbers of passengers will fly during the busiest travel season. More planes will fill the skies, and they'll be packed tighter than ever.

Here's another wrench in the works: The hired help is angry at the suits in the executive suite. There are reports that pilots at one carrier have expressed their anger by holding up flights.

Airline workers have surrendered more than $10-billion in annual concessions since 2002 in a wide industry restructuring. Many saw their paychecks shrink by about one-third.

Now, carriers are riding a financial updraft and guess who's reaping the benefits? Recent public filings tell the story.

At United Airlines, CEO Glenn Tilton received compensation that could be worth nearly $40-million. Northwest Airlines, ready to leave bankruptcy, gave CEO Doug Steenland $26.6-million in stock awards.

American Airlines pilots say nearly 900 managers and executives got $160-million in bonuses. US Airways CEO Doug Parker took home a $14.4-million pay package for 2006, thanks in part to a run-up in company stock after the old US Airways merged with America West.

Not surprisingly, airlines say the payouts are performance-based compensation for bosses who turned around sick companies. Also not surprising, the rank and file aren't buying it.

John McCorkle, a veteran US Airways flight attendant, figures Parker's odds of success were pretty good. America West always had low wages and US Airways was coming off a second Chapter 11.

"They're making progress because of salary reductions we made in two trips through bankruptcy court, " says McCorkle, president of an Association of Flight Attendants group in Philadelphia.

So what does this mean to passengers like us sitting back in the cheap seats? Possibly nothing. Pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and other airline workers are professionals who would tell you they and their families fly, too, and don't like getting stuck by late or canceled flights.

But two Sundays ago, US Airways had a terrible day. About half its flights were late, the worst since a late-winter storm that hit in March.

The airline blames high winds and heavy aircraft traffic at its Las Vegas hub and New York City airports. Pilots, however, told the Arizona Republic that pilots didn't show for flights, do any extra jobs or simply took their time on basic tasks.

The reason: Pilots for the old US Airways were upset over a seniority list issued two days earlier that ranked them below less experienced former America West pilots.

There's no way to say which is true. But everyone agrees there's a serious morale problem.

A year and a half after the merger, the two airlines still operate separately. Workers don't have new contracts that give equal pay to US Airways and America West pilots, flight attendants and mechanics doing the same work.

A strike would be illegal and unwise. There are other ways employees can show their unhappiness. Pilots can decline to work more than their scheduled hours.

That would cripple lean carriers that build schedules on the assumption pilots will fly extra time, says Robert W. Mann, an airline consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. "The lesson is you can't be at war with employees, or if you do ... you better think about running (schedules) differently, " he says.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.