Years ago I met an airline executive who had a thing about pilots. "Underworked, overpaid," he snarled. "Coddled. Self-centered. Childish." In fairness, he was in his cups. I remember vividly, having gotten to my third Diet Coke by that point.
Say what you will about any of his inebriated points, the fact is that pilots are important, and because the senior ones was really well-paid, they understand finances better than some people and can afford to buy shares and hector management at shareholder meetings.
Self-centered, my soused friend said - well, we're all looking out for number one, especially in contract talks, or we ought to (I'm a giving sort of guy and you wouldn't believe some of the things I gave up as a result over the years) - and airline management ignores a pilot's self-interest at its peril.
Pilots make more money when they become more senior. Seniority determines when you can be a captain, when you can fly the bigger jets and earn higher pay. Seniority determines when you can bid for a route you like and get it, rather than being bumped by someone more senior.
Because of this, any airline merger is a trial for pilots and the people who negotiate contracts with them. You might be a really senior pilot for Airline A, but when Airline A merges with Airline B you instantly become part of a larger pool, presumably with a larger number of people more senior.
Take any two airlines that merge, and one of them will have more older pilots than the other, which means some pilots for the other airline will go down significantly on the seniority ladder. Any time a merger is proposed, five minutes later all the pilots know which carrier has the more senior pilots.
US Airways and America West merged years ago and they still haven't figured out all the details on merging their seniority lists. American Airlines never really solved its seniority issues after acquiring TWA. There are reasons why Southwest has mostly preferred to grow organically; this one of them.
United Continental Corp. was formed a year and a half ago and still hasn't merged its pilot contracts, even though the two pilot groups belong to two locals of the same union, the Air Line Pilots Association.
But the pilots on the UAL side of the house say there is another factor in their disgruntlement. They accuse the management - which they never fail to mention has a number of people from the Continental side - of deliberately footdragging while they outsource regional flights.
To increase pressure for settlement, the United-side pilots now say, if the company doesn't commit to reaching agreement by the end of next month, they will seek federal mediator permission to quit the talks at the end of this month. If a strike is like a flight, this move will be like backing away from the gate.
They will probably settle. A certain amount of drama is traditional and arguably necessary in labor negotiations, sometimes giving a little covering fire while the professional negotiators on both sides do their work. But the union negotiators have their rank-and-filers' grievances to address and their resentments to assuage, and the company negotiators have to worry about their shareholders, whom I wuld have enjoyed hearing described by my well-watered buddy.