Accusations fly as Atlas Air pilots' union requests mediation

27 / 04 / 2016

A dispute involving 1,300 pilots flying for DHL-contracted airlines Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo in the US looks set to go to mediation.

The Teamsters union said on 26 April that the National Mediation Board (NMB) which facilitates labour relations in aviation had agreed to the request despite the fact that the companies had “strongly objected”.

It added that the NMB had assigned a specialist airline labour mediator to assess the parties’ dispute and determine how best to proceed.

In response, Atlas Air said it believed the request for mediation was premature as negotiations had only just begun.

"The NMB is currently investigating how to best move forward and will let the parties know what it concludes. While we continue to believe this request is early, we will cooperate fully with the process," Atlas said.

Atlas pilot Captain Mike Griffith and union communications chairman said that his colleagues were “fed up with Atlas and Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (AAWW)’s game playing and backroom corporate maneuvering to try to deny us basic workplace protections like the much-needed time to rest between international flights.”

He added that federal government intervention “will make sure they work with us to come to a fair contract agreement that is up to cargo industry standards.”

The dispute centres on AAWW’s recent acquisition of Southern Air and Florida West International Airways.

The unions claim that the new owners insisted that Atlas Air pilots stop ongoing contract negotiations and merge their contract with the Southern Air pilots’ existing contract which, they said would cut wages and degrade working conditions for Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo pilots “and could ultimately ripple throughout the industry”.

Atlas added: "As a result of the acquisition of Southern by Atlas, explicit processes are delineated in the respective collective bargaining agreements for negotiating a Joint Collective Bargaining Agreement.

"The union also announced that it is taking a strike vote. The union has no right to strike regardless of any strike vote.

"The Atlas and Southern Collective Bargaining Agreements provide that upon a merger, if the parties cannot reach a joint contract, any open issues are resolved through an orderly resolution process.

"The Southern acquisition is very good for Atlas and Southern pilots. As the merger details were initially announced, the International Leadership as well as that of Local 1224’s recognised the benefits of this merger by endorsing the transaction."

The union claims that the Southern Air contract was negotiated several years ago while the carrier was in bankruptcy and contains conditions “that fall far below cargo industry standards” as does the current Atlas Air contract.

Teamsters says that AAWW pilots are paid considerably less and work much longer hours than pilots who fly for UPS or FedEx and that pilots are becoming dangerously fatigued.

It adds that while AAWW’s $100 million dollar cash acquisition this year of financially-troubled SAI was touted as a positive move “shortly after the acquisition was announced, AAWW executives outraged pilots when their intentions were made clear that they expected to wrest wage and job protective concessions from Atlas Air pilots to help pay for the acquisition.”

It claims that management has stepped up harassment and intimidation of pilots, but this led to Atlas Air and Southern Air pilots announcing a strike vote last month which is currently in progress.

The union also warns that DHL could be at risk as it tries to reenter the North American express delivery market and compete head-to-head with UPS and FedEx. DHL owns 49% of Polar Air Cargo and accounts for over 50%  of Atlas Air’s business, as well as being the exclusive customer of Southern Air. Teamsters says its “has raised questions regarding DHL’s behind-the-scenes role in AAWW and SAI’s affairs and has asked the Department of Transportation to intervene to ensure that DHL is not violating federal aviation laws and regulations prohibiting interference with US air carriers by foreign entities.”

It claims that German-based DHL “has a record of engaging in unfair labour practices around the globe and encouraging the dilution of local standards, citing the devastation caused to the community of Wilmington, Ohio when it closed down its domestic US operation in 2008, with the loss of 8,000 jobs.