US Airways: How Not to Cope With Bickering Pilots After a Merger

Last Updated Jun 10, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The US Airways (LCC) pilot saga continues to get stranger by the day, and it's now putting the company in an odd position. There really is no good way to move forward for the company, but management is going to have to figure out what to do anyway.

This fight has been going on for more than four years, so here's a quick summary. When US Airways and America West came together, the pilots agreed to binding arbitration to determine how to integrate their seniority lists. Seniority is the lifeblood of an airline pilot, so this was no simple task. In the end, what was known as the "Nicolau Award" came out with a seniority list. Since this was binding arbitration, it should have been implemented and then they could all move on.

The US Airways guys didn't like the arbitration result, however, so they voted in a new union (they easily outvoted the America West pilots). They claimed they didn't have to accept the Nicolau Award, even though it was the result of binding arbitration, and they've been in court ever since. The America West pilots had won every step of the way until this latest ruling.

Late last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case was not "ripe," so now the pilots are moving forward to "freely bargain for the terms of its seniority integration." What the heck does that mean?

According to USLegal:

In order for a case to be ripe to litigate in court, the challenged law or government action must have produced a direct threat. If suit is brought on the anticipated actions resulting from a law not yet enacted, the case is not ripe for consideration.
And that's exactly what the Ninth Circuit said. No damage has been done because there's no new seniority list out there yet. Until that happens, there's nothing to discuss. The America West pilots, of course, are looking to appeal to the full Ninth Circuit bench.

But what does this mean for management? It's a very sticky situation. Airline officials agreed to implement the results of binding arbitration back in the day, so if the US Airways pilots come to them with a new list, can they actually implement that list or will it go against what they've already agreed to do?

Let's say that they do implement the new list. Then the case will be ripe, and they'll end up in court again, very likely with the America West pilots winning. So if that's going to happen, should the company even bother to accept a new seniority list when they know it almost certainly won't stick?

I don't know that there's any legal precedent for something like this -- at least, I haven't seen any. The airline isn't issuing any definitive stance and that's probably because it doesn't have one yet. This just continues to get more complex and, unfortunately, further from a resolution.

Photo via Flickr user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com