Cover Story: US Airways pilots protest - | WBTV Charlotte

Cover Story: US Airways pilots protest

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Hundreds of US Airways pilots stand-up and say it's finally their turn.

A picket in the name of higher pay outside Charlotte Douglas Airport.

These days, US Airways is back in black.  2010 was the turnaround year.  The hometown airline is expected to post a profit for the fourth quarter and the entire past year.

But rewind to September 2001. The airlines were in shambles after the terrorist attacks.  It took years to recover.

And that recovery was made possible, in part, by the pilots' willingness to take massive pay-cuts to keep the airline afloat.

Now they want a raise and they say management is dragging its feet on contract talks.

This gone on for awhile.  Two and a half years they've been negotiating.  Five and a half years since the airline merged.  Pilots want you to know there could be turbulence ahead.

In a city not known for labor activity - protests and pickets - an unusual sight at Charlotte Douglas Airport Tuesday.

"The pilots are very frustrated, very frustrated."

300 uniformed pilots from US Airways, some brought in from other cities filled up two bridges.

And then marched in precision measure limited to 10 at a time in an informational picket in front of the terminal building at Douglas.

"I think there are fairness issues that the public should be concerned about. I think there are genuine safety issues that the public should be concerned about," said Mike Cleary head US Airline Pilots Association, the union that represents 5,000 US Airways pilots.

Since US Airways merged with America West five and a half years ago pilots have worked under two different contracts.

The one they're under now was negotiated after US Airways' second bankruptcy, a deal that slashed their pay an average of 40-to-50 percent.

Since then the airline's turned a profit and stresses over pay and other issues have taken a toll.

"The upper executives at this corporation are awarding themselves 100 and 200 percent bonuses for the great job they're doing.. they failed to remember who kept them afloat during the tough times," said Capt. James Ray, a US Airways pilot and union spokesman.

Men and women.  Young and old stood toe to toe together.

"These guys are under great pressure. I think passengers out to think twice about booking travel on an airline whose pilots are under such severe stress," said Cleary.

US Airways pilots say they're the lowest paid among all the major airlines.  They're asking for an increase that would put them in the middle of the pack.

Since January last year both sides have been holding contract talks with a federal mediator.. which has yielded little so far.

Tuesday's information picket in Charlotte is the third in as many months and designed to turn up the heat on the company.  The ultimate leverage they have - a strike - no one wants to go there.

Passengers like Ellen Carroll of York, South Carolina are sympathetic to the cause.

"I fly two or three times a week. I'll support whatever they need because I need pilots.. to fly flights I get on everyday," said Carroll.

US Airways management it's negotiating in good faith but says one of the holdups is the issue of pilot seniority which hasn't been settled.

The company says it's put $120 million on the table but the pilots union hasn't accepted the offer.

The picket didn't impact airline operations today.  Pilots say the increase in salary they're asking for is about what it costs US Airways to supply you with a bottle of bottle.

Next week the airline is expected to report a nearly $450 million dollar profit for the fourth quarter.

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