By Joe Brancatelli
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April 12, 2008 -- The high cost of bad labor relations has been obvious all week at American Airlines.

The carrier's executives have been at pains to claim that wiring problems on its grounded fleet of MD-80 aircraft were a "precise compliance" issue and not a "safety of flight" issue. (Two terms of art that have been turned into instant cliches by American, by the way.) But the official line, repeated yesterday in a letter of apology and explanation that the airline E-mailed to its best customers, has been consistently and quite publicly undercut by a virtual fifth column: American's own pilots.

From the beginning of this crisis of cancellations, American's in-house pilots union has rolled out captain-hatted, gold-braided aviators who vehemently dispute the company's characterization. This absolutely is about flight safety and the quality of American's fleet, the captains and first officers have stoutly and gravely maintained.

In the battle of public perception, if nothing else, it raises the question of who the paying customers are more likely to believe: the airline's executives, who have one eye on the balance sheet and one eye on the carrier's deteriorating brand image, or the pilots, who can coyly, but credibly, adopt the my-only-job-is-to-keep-you-safe mantra.

The pilots--who have battled for decades with generations of American management--are once again embroiled in contentious contract negotiations with the airline. And the carrier's maintenance practices have been one of those flashpoints of contention. Witness, for example, this rally-the-troops video that coincidentally posted on the Allied Pilots Association Web site just a few hours before Tuesday's MD-80 grounding. Some of the claims are too glibly presented, but the video also raises a vexing question that I've asked for months: If so much of American's much-chronicled bad on-time performance and atrocious cancellation rate in the past 18 months is due to bad weather at the carrier's Dallas/Fort Worth hub, a claim American managers routinely make, how come Southwest Airlines has so few delays and cancellations at Dallas/Love Field just a few miles away?

The pilots also went even more conspicuously public yesterday with a blistering full-page ad in USA Today condemning American Airlines management. "Why is American Airlines failing its customers?" the ad asked. Another tactic: a pilot-backed Web site that urges travelers to complain to American management and the Department of Transportation.

Of course, a lot of this back-and-forth is traditional labor-management bickering. And I've long said that you have to view pilots unions as the business-travel equivalent of the baseball players union. They both represent a comparatively well-compensated crew of talented individuals who incorrectly think their singular skill makes them brilliant business managers, too. And neither pilots nor baseball players are particularly respected in the world of organized labor. Both have often sold out their less-well-compensated "union brothers" the moment that they get what they want for themselves.

Still, you cannot ignore the obvious: When American's politburo desperately needed its employees to support management's nothing-to-see-here view of the flight-safety issues surrounding the MD-80s, one high-profile union had enough credibility and more than enough pent-up anger to publicly pummel the company line.

Maybe it's a matter of turnabout being fair play. Remember last year, when American chief executive Gerard Arpey and other top executives reaped a windfall of bonuses as the carrier's operational performance declined and employees struggled with concession-laden contracts? At the airline's annual meeting, Arpey blithely brushed away union complaints and said labor and management might have to "agree to disagree" about the sweet life in the corporate suites. "This is an issue on which we may have a hard time finding common ground," he said.

Looks to me like the pilots this week told Arpey the very same thing about American's claims about the MD-80 groundings. They have very publicly agreed to disagree.

And while management wields the metaphoric hammer when it comes to feathering their corporate nest with bonus payments and stock options, men and women with epaulets on their shoulders and gold braids on their sleeves have the hammer--and the flying public's hearts and minds--when it comes to assessing and characterizing safety matters.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.