Friday, March 27, 2009

AirTran pilot's puzzling suspension

AirTran Airways logoYesterday the AirTran Airways pilots' union issued a press release strongly condemning what they called the "wrongful suspension" of a pilot. The National Pilots Association (NPA), the independent union that represents AirTran pilots, also asked the public "to join them in demanding that [the suspended pilot] be reinstated immediately and paid in full." The suspended pilot's offense? --  appearing in uniform at a circus.

The NPA press release explains:
...[M]anagement's position is that the pilot was in violation of AirTran's flight operations manual and would face possible discipline for wearing his uniform while dropping off his wife and two young children at a circus in Atlanta on February 21, 2009. The NPA sponsored a family day at the circus, and the pilot was on his way to work when he stopped at Philips Arena to help his wife with their kids.

"He was wearing his uniform so that he could get to work on time," said First Officer Tim Baker, spokesman for the NPA. "The circus started at 3 p.m., and he had to be at work at 4:30 p.m. He was leaving on a four day trip and wanted to spend as much time with the kids as possible. He will soon be deployed overseas and is focused on spending time with his family. He only stayed at the circus for a few minutes. The rules even state that he can wear his uniform to and from work."
The press release went on to note that the man who was suspended also is a pilot in the Air Force Reserves, where he has served for thirteen years.

AirTran Airways shot back almost immediately with its own statement to the press:
The suspended pilot wore his uniform to a non-work, NPA union-sponsored event in clear violation of the Flight Operations Manual and the collective bargaining agreement.

This policy has been clearly communicated to the airline's 1,700 pilots and is standard practice throughout the aviation and other industries.

The NPA union leadership had the opportunity to avoid this suspension on several occasions, and they chose not to.

AirTran Airways is dedicated to dealing equitably with all Crew Members, and to exempt pilots from the policy would be unfair to our other hard-working Crew Members.

The airline has no further comment on this issue and will not conduct labor relations through the media.
NPA President Linden Hillman said, "It is intolerable for our pilots to be exposed to this type of intimidation. We have tried to resolve this issue directly with management. However, we continue to find management unreasonable. It would be nice to see management focused on returning to profitability, instead of threatening their hardworking crewmembers. You don't see other airlines treating their employees like this."

I have to admit, this is one of those stories that has me scratching my head. I can't help but think there are a few more pieces to this odd story that have not been revealed publicly.

Who 'told on' the pilot? Did someone take his picture in uniform at the circus (and pass it along to management)? Did he do something at the circus that reflected poorly on his employer?

And what about those "other hard-working Crew Members" mentioned in the airline's press statement? Who are they, and what was it about the pilot's brief appearance at the circus that was "unfair" to them?

Or is this just a power play?  After all, relations between AirTran Airways and its pilots have been anything but harmonious for quite some time.

Since 2004, the pilots have been in contract negotiations with AirTran. Those negotiations have proceeded -- if that is the right word -- in fits and starts and often have been contentious.

Meanwhile, the NPA leadership voted unanimously last month to approve a merger agreement with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Voting on that measure by the full membership is currently underway, and is due to wind up by April 10. Should the membership approve the deal, the merger with ALPA would go into effect on May 1, 2009.

If the pilots become a part of ALPA, they will be able to draw upon ALPA's considerable resources during the next round of contract negotiations. So I'm wondering: is the suspension of the pilot who stopped by the circus in his uniform simply a move by AirTran to show some muscle?

If any readers would like to fill in the missing details of this story, or opine about the motivations behind this very public snit, you are welcome to leave a comment.

UPDATE Apr. 11, 2009:  AirTran pilots plan to picket on Monday, Apr. 13, 2009 outside the North Terminal of Atlanta’s airport in protest of what it claims is “a pattern of threats and intimidation” by the airline against the pilots, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle, which reports:
The union said in a statement its members have been “energized by the recent suspension of one of our pilots” in what the union calls “a blatant attempt” to intimidate the pilots.
And by the way, the AirTran Airways pilots voted 'overwhelmingly' to merge their union with the Air Line Pilots Association.