MIAMI— Second only to firefighter, airline pilot consistently ranks as the top most-respected profession in the world. The stereotype of the stoic, benevolent, grandfatherly problem-solver in the sky is embedded in our psyche. Calm in the face of danger, the airline pilot gets ‘er done. Plane on fire? No problem. Flock of geese fry your engines? On it. Cat caught in a tree? Keep calm and call an airline pilot.

But this heroic sky god has a secret weakness as powerful as Superman’s Kryptonite, one that will reduce him to a blubbering, tantrum-throwing 2-year old. Worse, it threatens to transform the benevolent Supergramps into Bizarro Supergramps, a snarling, cannibalistic jackal willing eat his own kind.

This Kryptonite has a name: Seniority.

Seniority is everything to pilots. It dictates whether they’re Captains or First Officers, hold a line (schedule) or are on reserve (on call), the size of the toy they get to fly, and in which city—from Paris to Pocatello—they’re based. It determines whether they have weekends and Christmas off, or have to fly red-eyes.

It dictates whether they even have a job.

Unlike doctors, lawyers and other professionals, pilots cannot make lateral moves between companies. Why? Because seniority is nontransferable between companies. Besides, there is simply no easy measuring stick for saying, “This pilot is ‘better’ than that one, and therefore should be senior.” Either a pilot can meet minimum flying standards, or can’t. So, regardless of skill and experience, the pilot switching companies goes straight to the bottom of the next list.

As a result, for any given single company, seniority is solely based on date of hire (DOH). The longer a pilot stays—in theory—the higher up the food chain, and therefore the better one’s schedule, pay, and job security. The more people beneath them, the more they are cushioned from furlough (layoff, with recall rights) during a downturn. When a single company is involved, everybody agrees: DOH is the only fair way to determine seniority.

But when airlines merge, all hell breaks loose. Mergers unleash the pilot’s kryptonite like Lex Luthor never could.

At first glance, DOH seems like a fair integration for any merger as well. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? Not necessarily. In some extreme cases, it can be devastating.

Regardless of the methodology used, however, no merged list is ever 100% “fair”—one pilot always moves up on the back of another. Moreover, “fair” is solely in the eye of the beholder. As a result, there has rarely been an airline merger wherein the pilots got together, held hands and sang Kumbaya while hammering out a reasonable, integrated seniority list. Instead, both sides often fight beak and claw for the slightest advantage, and will stop at nothing to press advantage. No dirty trick is forbidden.

There’s no better example of this cannibalistic behavior than the 2005 purchase of bankrupt US Airways by the much younger, more nimble and financially sound company, America West Airlines.

At the time, original US Airways (“East”) pilots had just about as many pilots on furlough (1,700, or 33% of the East pilot body) as America West (“West”) had pilots.During seniority negotiations with ALPA (Airline Pilots Association, their mutual union), East pilots argued vehemently for DOH. This would have had the effect of “stapling” 80% of West pilots beneath the East (even below those that had been laid off), forcing the majority of West pilots onto the street—the very same pilots that had saved their jobs.

So much for singing Kumbaya.

During arbitration hearings, the West argued for a “relative seniority” integration, which would keep virtually all pilots—East and West—in their respective airplane, seat and base. This would have the added benefit of minimal costs for the new airline, by greatly reducing training required by the upheaval of pilots moving into different seats and equipment that DOH would have unleashed.

Arbitrator George Nicolau agreed to a relative seniority list, but placed 517 East pilots on top of the West pilots’ entire seniority list.That is, the #1 West pilot was now #518. Every West pilot lost seniority, while every East pilot gained.

Fair? Again, fair is in the eye of the beholder. While the West pilots reluctantly agreed to the compromise (arbitration requires “agreement in advance”), the East pilots went, for lack of a better term, bizarro. Using their superior numbers (about two to one), the East forced the West out of ALPA and into their own, in-house union, “US Airways Pilots Association” (USAPA). USAPA’s Prime Directive: implement their DOH list and ignore the legally binding Nicolau arbitration—even though they had agreed to the list in advance. What’s more, the company had already accepted the Nicolau seniority list.

USAPA’s very first act as a “union” (and we use this term loosely here) was to sue 24 West pilots—the very same pilots they claimed to represent—for the “crime” of fighting back. USAPA accused the 24 pilots of violating RICO laws, which had been designed solely to fight organized crime. What’s worse, required by law to pay union dues, these alleged “Mafia” defendants were forced into the legally bizarre position of suing themselves. The suit was thrown out as frivolous, appealed, and thrown out again. But not without costing the 24 pilots tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

For the past ten years, more lawsuits have flown East and West like round-trip transcons, with both sides fighting to a virtual stalemate. Only this summer, on the verge of the new merger with “native American” pilots, has the West finally managed a string of decisive legal victories, including a seat on the new seniority integration committee (all along, East pilots had claimed to represent West pilots), and a federal injunction requiring USAPA to advocate for the original Nicolau award. In typical fashion, upon being slapped with the injunction, East negotiators temporarily pulled out of negotiations.

By all accounts, USAPA failed as a union. Obsessed with DOH, it stonewalled all pilot contract negotiations. Once the top moneymakers, pre-AA-merger US Airways pilots languished at the rock bottom of the industry. And a work slowdown by USAPA hardliners—under the thinly-veiled guise of bogus safety concerns—was met with a blistering court injunction.

Nevertheless, USAPA’s self-serving tactics have wrought the desired destruction. Its every action favored East pilots over West; something blatantly illegal under “duty of fair representation” (DFR) labor laws. Recent court rulings have confirmed these heinous acts.
As a result of this schism, dozens of active West pilots were subsequently furloughed, while all East furloughs were recalled, and hiring on the East began in earnest. To add insult to injury, with West pilots still on the street, these post-merger new-hire pilots on the East began upgrading to Captain.

No proper, upstanding union would ever allow such upside-down seniority without demanding that, at the very least, senior pilots stuck in lower positions receive equal pay as their junior captain counterparts.

USAPA’s response? Silence.

While not nearly the debacle as AWA/US Airways, the recent mergers at United/Continental, Delta/Northwest and Southwest/AirTran have all experienced similar turbulence. And American Airlines’ purchase of TWA was so volatile that it prompted Congress to create the McCaskill-Bond Amendment.

Three-way arbitration between East and West US Airways pilots and native American pilots have only recently begun. So far, with USAPA cronies muzzled and hamstrung by the recent court rulings, things appear to be moving forward. Moreover, the parties do seem to have taken lessons from the past as well, agreeing ahead of time to a three-person arbitration panel to umpire the proceedings. Arbitration seems to be moving forward, with a final seniority list expected to be issued by the Arbitrators in April 2016.

What stands to happen? If the past is any indicator, you’d better buckle your seatbelts. As far as pilot seniority integration goes, we may be in for some serious self-inflicted turbulence.
In the immortal words of Pogo, We have met the enemy and he is us.