December 28, 2004
A rant at the airline unions

The Associated Press (via Yahoo! News) reports that Norman Mineta has oredered an investigation into the transportation meltdown this weekend at Comair and US Airways, in which computer systems crashed, baggage was mishandled, and thousands of travellers were inconvenienced and stranded. I'm going to skip over Comair's issues, because I have a personal experience with US Airways.

I flew home on Sunday, via US Airways. I arrived at the airport in Orlando two and a half hours early, only to discover that my flight was going to be delayed, due to an "equipment problem". (It appears that aircraft require maintenance personnel, flight attendants, and ground crew in order to be operated.) When it became obvious that I was going to miss my connecting flight to Seattle, I was shifted to another flight to Philadelphia, which was an hour late departing. (It left half an hour after my flight was supposed to leave; it was originally supposed to leave 35 minutes BEFORE my flight.) When I arrived in Philadelphia, my connecting flight also departed an hour late, apparently because of a shortage of gate agents. When I arrived in Seattle, I was dismayed to realize that my luggage did not make it with me.

Yesterday (Monday), I called the US Airways baggage claim hotline to check on the status of my baggage. I got a machine which informed me that my baggage was still missing. I called later in the evening to check for an update, and was informed that the center was closed. (I suppose the machine that handled my call was demanding overtime, which the bankrupt airline cannot afford.) My luggage finally arrived here at noon today.

While the unions deny it, it appears that US Airways was the target of a work slowdown by union workers disgruntled by pay cuts the airline needs to enact to avoid liquidation. Given the choice between a 17 percent pay cut (what USAirways is proposing) and a 100 percent pay cut (which will be the result of a liquidation), the choice seems clear to me, but the union leaders are not always known for their logic. To their credit, the pilot's union has agreed to a 24 percent pay cut; the remaining unions are still jockeying for position.

What the unions do not realize is that the people who are most affected by the slowdown are the passengers, who are not likely to sympathize with the unions when they are stranded overnight because of a cancelled flight, or have to do without their luggage for two days. (I had to buy another razor and do without my house keys; luckily my roommate was home). It seems to be self-defeating because it is only going to reduce the number of people who will fly US Airways in the future, assuming that it is not liquidated next month. Fewer passengers means fewer jobs, or more across-the-board wage cuts. It's no coincidence that US Airways and United had the industry's highest labor costs (before they declared bankruptcy and forced through some pay cuts) and new high-cost leader Delta is teetering on the edge. When 40 percent of a company's expenses go towards labor (in a field with very high equipment operating costs), it is obvious that something is amiss.

posted on December 28, 2004 07:51 PM


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