I really can’t believe this is still going on. But, some background first.
Back in the days of airline regulation, TWA was a force to be reckoned with. They had a substantial network in Europe and plenty of flights back and forth from the US to fuel it. They also had a decent network in the US to move people to gateway cities to fill those planes shuttling across the Atlantic.
Then, deregulation happened, and TWA never really did have their feet underneath them to compete the way they needed to. Depending on who you talk to, Carl Icahn was a big part of the reason the empire that Howard Hughes helped build fell apart in the 90s. In the interim (and after deregulation), TWA decided that it would move its Midwest operations to St. Louis from Chicago.
As TWA breathed it’s last gasp, American Airlines stepped in and purchased the airline. And, this is where contracts and worst-case scenarios come into play. One of the biggest problems the unions have dealt with over the years is seniority, especially when it comes to merging two airlines and their employee bases. A union representing the TWA pilots negotiated on their behalf, gaining the right to have a “fence” of sorts around St. Louis, meaning their pilots would maintain the most privileged routes out of that hub.
The writing was on the wall pretty quickly that American would not be operating two midwest US airport hubs, and St. Louis was “de-hubbed”. So, what happened to all those TWA pilots? They got tacked to the bottom of the American Airlines seniority list. This was around 9/11, and when the industry drastically downsized, many of these pilots were furloughed. Game over, except for the lawsuits that continue 14 years later. This is a very condensed version of the issues at hand.
Fast forward to today and the pending lawsuit that the TWA pilots are still waiting for answers on while they sue former union representation, and even American Airlines for being complicit.
The bankruptcy judge in charge of the American Airlines bankruptcy filing finally ruled on the most current lawsuit, dismissing 4 of the 10 claims the plaintiffs (ex-TWA pilots) had:
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sean Lane has refused to toss out a lawsuit by former Trans World Airlines pilots who accused the Allied Pilots Association of failing in its “duty of fair representation” and American Airlines of “colluding” with APA.
But Lane did rule against the TWA pilots in their efforts to challenge the seniority list that put close to half of them far down in the seniority list and the rest of them behind all American pilots after AA acquired TWA in April 2001.
The lawsuit stemmed from American’s decision in 2012 – while in bankruptcy proceedings – to close its St. Louis hub. That undercut some protections, Supplement CC to the Allied Pilots Association contract, that had been negotiated in the wake of American’s 2001 acquisition of TWA.
While that supplement locked in the lower seniority numbers given to TWA pilots, it provided a “fence” around the St. Louis base. That fence gave the TWA pilots preferential seniority for St. Louis flying over non-TWA pilots among the American pilot group.
With the base closing, the 650 ex-TWA pilots at that base faced being dropped into the general pool of AA pilots, with their much lower seniority numbers.
Terry’s team was nice enough to post the entire response from the judge here.
Though there have been many rulings in this case, the ex-TWA pilots are still pushing forward. There was a decision by a jury in 2011 that the union had wronged the pilots. There were and are plenty of strong feelings. One of the two unions involved, the ALPA, actually came to a settlement agreement with the pilots in early 2014. $53 million may sound like a lot, but when you’re talking about hundreds of pilots and years of litigation, I don’t suspect anyone is getting rich from that settlement (okay, other than the lawyers).
It’s not even the first time this judge has ruled for or against (or both for and against) the TWA pilots. There was an earlier decision that went against them in 2014. Though I can’t be sure from my reading of the material, my guess is that the current lawsuit stemmed from lessons learned when the judge rejected their claims back in 2014.
Reading through the text of Judge Lane’s decision, I thought this part was interesting.
More specifically, American contends that where “plaintiffs elected not to file a petition to vacate or modify the arbitration award, they could not ‘now collaterally attack the . . . award in the context of [a] hybrid claim for breach of the duty of fair representation.’” Motion to Dismiss, at 14 (citing Musto v. Transp. Workers Union of Am., 818 F. Supp. 2d 621, 640 (E.D.N.Y. 2011)).
The Court disagrees. In fact, the case law recognizes that a duty of fair representation claim can be brought independent of a request to vacate an arbitration result.
Essentially, he’s denying American’s claim that the Plaintiff’s motion should be dismissed because they didn’t elect to challenge the original arbitration award. The judge soundly rejects this claim. There are a few more nuanced arguments the judge leaves open.
I find it interesting that the judge still finds that American Airlines could have caused harm (or been complicit with the unions). And, I’ll be interested to see where the lawsuit ultimately ends up.