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Friday, September 2, 2016

No Wholesale

The contract between Braniff, Inc. and the pilots represented by the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) became amendable soon after these new owners took over.  The Braniff pilots' Master Executive Counsel (MEC) came up with the negotiating slogan, No Wholesale.  Their symbol was the word Wholesale covered by the international symbol for No.

The MEC is the name for elected ALPA leadership for each individual airline branch of the union.  The pilots at each airline negotiate their contract with the company in the hope that each new contract leap frogs the previous ones in pay and benefits.

The United States federal law that governs railroad and airline labor negotiations is called the Railway Labor Act.   This act came into existence because strikes by railroad employees threatened to completely shut down the American economy.   You can read up on this all you want, but for our purposes, let me simply say that the act gives the companies all the aces in the deck.  The National Mediation Board oversees all airline negotiations and controls whether the pilots of an airline can go on strike or not.  The presidents administration controls the NMB and the politics don't always go the way you might believe they do.  Don't doubt me on this, I can provide several examples, but that is not within the scope of my story right now.

One of the high cards the pilots do have is the fact that they control the airplanes and there are regulations and procedures that must be complied with.  Another high card is the fact that airplanes break and must be fixed.

Contracts under the RLA don't have deadlines when they expire.  They become amendable and serious negotiations don't really begin until sometime after that date, frequently much time after that date. The pilots just keep working under the terms of the previous agreement, until the NMB decides that an impasse has been reached, then there are several hurdles and flaming hoops to jump over and through all while watching a major goat rope.

Things kind of ride along as usual, until the pilot group starts getting restless and tries to do something to force the company to get serious.  They can put ads in papers and on TV, but most people don't give a rat's tookus about what some rich airline pilots are whining about.  Of course, the Braniff pilots were not exactly rich.  Remember that we pilots at Florida Express were paid far below the standard of the industry and had to take a pay cut to get in line with the Braniff pilots.

The biggest thing pilots can do is what is euphemistically referred to as a "safety campaign".  This is when they study all the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) and company procedures and start operating the planes to the letter of the law, so to speak.  When the pilots are happy and operating normally, they may be taking some liberties with some of that to operate more efficiently.  Don't get me wrong, I don't think they are operating unsafely, it is just that some of the regulations and procedures are overly restrictive and it is impossible to operate on time when following them precisely.  They are written for a lowest common denominator situation.

I've probably scared the hell out of potential passengers with that, but rest assured that the pilots would never intentionally do anything that was unsafe.  For example, the regulations say that we must write any and every mechanical discrepancy in the logbook as soon as we become aware of it.  There are many minor discrepancies, that have no impact on safety of flight, that will not find their way into the logbook until such time as they can be repaired without impacting the crews ability to stay on schedule.

Now, without getting too deeply into that and without saying anything that will get anyone (me) into trouble, let me say that we former Florida Express pilots at Braniff (Branflakes) had the perfect tool for contract negotiations in the BAC 1-11.  If you have been reading my blog posts leading up to this point, you know that it was an old, tired, worn out airplane.  It also had some inherent design issues.  Having owned several small British roadsters, I had learned that the Brits don't seem to understand how to make reliable electrical systems in vehicles.  The BAC had a little more electrical control of its systems than similar planes of its era.  For example the DC-9 used cable and pulley systems much more.  (Old airline joke:  Why was Douglas not more involved in the space program?  They didn't have a cable long enough to reach to the moon.)

The BAC (pronounced bock) planes that we bought from USAir and British Aerospace had lots of hours and lots of cycles on them. The wiring was old and things were alway shorting out and it was too expensive to simply rewire the planes.  What I'm saying is that there were lots of mechanical problems to go into the logbook and we had been flying the planes for years and knew all the deficiencies.

Writing every little deficiency in the logbook requires that a mechanic must deal with the write-ups   This means that it must be cleared by either fixing it or deferring it under the Minimum Equipment List (MEL).  OK, I guess this is going to open a whole new can of worms for the white knuckle flyers.  Airplanes are designed with lots of redundancy.  Two engines, two generators, so and and so forth.  Some of these components can be deferred, to be fixed at some later time and to allow the plane to complete its schedule.  For example, with an engine driven generator inoperative on the BAC, you could keep the APU running inflight and use its generator.  If that became inoperative, you had to have one of them fixed.  It's all covered in a very complex and elaborate manual on the plane.

All of this takes time and causes delays.  The daily schedule of an airline is tight and complex.  After deregulation, they began to operate hub and spoke systems.  A large fleet of their planes arrive at nearly the same time at one of the hub airports, then passengers do a big ant pile thing in the terminal, get on another plane and continue on to their ultimate destination.  (I just scared the white knuckle crowd again with those words.)  This collection of planes at the hub is called a bank.

When a significant number of planes in the bank have mechanical deficiencies to deal with, the mechanics are overwhelmed.  It takes less time to defer them, so the planes are sent out with less redundancy than they came in with.  Then, when they get to an airport on one of the spokes, a loss of a now essential component can shut down the operation of that plane for a while.  This all causes delays and cancellations and costs the airline money.  It also hurts their reputation and bottom line.  That is why the advertising by the pilots group can be effective.  Savvy travelers know that when they see such advertising, there will probably be delays with that airline and it would be wise to book flights with the competition.

Another example is the way we fly the plane.  Our manuals and all of our training have us fly a squared off approach pattern to the runway.  When weather permits and we are in a normal operating mode, we accept visual approaches, which take responsibility for traffic separation from the controllers and give it to the pilots.  The shape of the approach pattern can be modified from the long, squared off patterns we are trained to fly and make the traffic situation at the busy airport operate more efficiently.  When we don't accept the visual approaches, things are slowed and traffic can back up.  That is a trap the airlines set for themselves, because they try to schedule too many planes to arrive at or depart from an airline at the same time.  The limiting factor is the number of runways that can be used.  Then you have more than one airline using an airport as a hub and they also try to schedule all their flights at the same time.  It is a marketing thing, but it creates traffic problems.

My friend, Warren, was now the BAC 1-11 chief pilot for Orlando. He told me that he had attended a meeting of all the top pilots of the airline about the issues that were being created during the contract negotiations.  He said that he explained to the others that the pilots were nihilistic.  He liked using words like that, but he was probably right.  Our attitude was, 'If we don't get ours, you don't get yours'.  Our parent company, Dalfort, was trying to raise $1million in some Wall Street deal, claiming they were going to use it to expand the airline.  They had started leasing new Airbus 320s and looking like things would be upgraded.  The company bought a big new home for Fibber McGee in Orlando.  We were not going to let all that happen, if we were not brought along for the ride.  The Branflakes were especially on fire about all this, because we felt we had been screwed by both the company and the Braniff pilot group.

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