20 Years After The Merger, TWA Pilots Lose Lawsuit Against American Airlines (And Their Own Union)

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Twenty years after the merger, the TWA pilots lost a lawsuit against American Airlines (and their own union).

Gary Leff on February 6, 2021.

American Airlines took over TWA in 2001, and since then former TWA employees have felt like they were in control. The latest case involves former TWA pilots who are suing American Airlines and its pilots union for allegedly conspiring to deprive those pilots of executive management of the airline in 2011, when the airline went bankrupt. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted John Krakowski et al. v. Allied Pilots Association et al.

A three-judge panel has ruled that two federal courts in New York – the district court and the bankruptcy court – correctly charged American and the Allied Pilots Association with conspiring to strip seniority from a group of former Trans World Airlines pilots in arbitration over American’s bankruptcy.

“We affirm the dismissal of [the pilots’] claims against APA and American Airlines on the factual grounds stated by the bankruptcy court [and the district court],” the Commission wrote in its interim order affirming the dismissal. “We have examined the remaining arguments [of the pilots] and found them to be without merit.

TWA pilots who came from an airline that went bankrupt after being acquired by American Airlines lost their seniority when they became American Airlines pilots. However, they were given “special jobs” at the former TWA base in St. Louis, but were disqualified in the bankruptcy proceedings (and the St. Louis facility itself was subsequently closed). They lost the promise they had received ten years earlier and took their case to arbitration, which they thought would restore their seniority, and they expected the union to fight for it.

This was never realistic because TWA pilots were a minority in the union and this would disadvantage other senior pilots in the union. When workers join a union, it is often not the workers against the company, but a few workers who sacrifice for the benefit of other workers. American flight attendants certainly learned this when their union negotiated that younger workers would work at the beginning of the pandemic while older workers would stay home and continue to be paid.

At the time of the 2013 agreement, 162 former TWA pilots were stationed in St. Louis, half of whom were masters and half were co-pilots, out of a total of 900 former TWA pilots owned by American. The commanders were threatened with demotion to co-pilot status, although as part of the merger they were offered commanders’ seats on former US Airways Embraer E-190s based on seniority of pilots from both carriers, but this would have meant a transfer or reassignment. Other pilots were expected to lose their reserve status.

There was a complicated disagreement over the wording of the contract regarding whether TWA’s pilots were guaranteed the protection they had received ten years earlier until one of the named pilots reached the level of captain in the airline’s regular system, which would have meant doing so on older American Airlines aircraft, or whether US Airways Embraer E-190 aircraft were considered captains.

The former TWA pilots wanted the court to declare that their union had failed in its duty to represent them and that American was part of the lawsuit because, according to the pilots, the airline was part of a conspiracy to undermine them.

But the Second Circuit rejected arguments that had already been rejected “in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018” in a New York bankruptcy court for insufficient evidence of collusion, and in 2019 in a federal district court.

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