- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

Mechanics for US Airways are threatening a strike nearly certain to shut down the Arlington airline if it moves airplane renovation work out of its Pennsylvania maintenance facilities.

About 1,900 of US Airways’ more than 5,000 mechanics work at the airline’s Pittsburgh International Airport facility.

Unionized mechanics throughout the US Airways network say they also would walk off the job if there is a strike in Pittsburgh.

“It would be a nationwide dispute and a nationwide strike if it gets to that point,” said Joseph Tiberi, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

US Airways officials are trying to find ways to cut costs after emerging from bankruptcy March 31. The airline says it is carrying 3.7 percent more passengers per airplane than a year ago. However, the total number of passengers is down 13.6 percent since August 2002, many of them business travelers. US Airways blames a soft economy and overcapacity in the airline industry.

The dispute involves renovation of the airline’s 121 Airbus planes. A manufacturer’s maintenance schedule recommends “heavy maintenance” after five years of service.

US Airways began acquiring the Airbus planes five years ago. It has a fleet of 279 jets. The others were made by Boeing Co.

Heavy maintenance refers to rebuilding or replacing worn parts of the airplane engine, structure and major components. Routine maintenance refers to lighter work, such as ensuring engine fluids are kept at recommended levels or making certain moving parts work properly.

US Airways officials say their labor contract allows use of contractors for work not normally done by US Airways employees, such as the heavy maintenance on the Airbus planes.

“It’s work we’re not doing today,” said David Castelveter, US Airways spokesman. “It’s not a violation of our contract. It’s not a major dispute. It’s a matter of interpreting the existing language in the contract, which can be resolved through arbitration. It’s not going to affect any of the jobs of our existing mechanics.”

The union disagrees.

“The agreement says we do the heavy maintenance on the aircraft, regardless of what type of aircraft it is,” Mr. Tiberi said.

For several months, the company has been doing an “economic feasibility study” on whether to give the heavy maintenance work to an outside contractor.

The work requires separate facilities, equipment and training from the routine maintenance, company officials said. If they do the work in-house, they would need to build a new facility, buy new equipment and hire and train new employees.

“If we decide we’re going to do this with our own employees, were going to have to start from square one,” Mr. Castelveter said.

Company officials plan to make a decision on whether to hire an outside contractor after the feasibility study is complete, which is expected soon.

“We’re determining right now which path we want to do,” Mr. Castelveter said. “We haven’t put a time frame on it.”

The union is awaiting the company’s decision before taking further action. It also is rejecting efforts by US Airways to settle the dispute by arbitration.

The labor contract says minor disputes, which involve interpretation of contract terms, should be resolved through arbitration. If the union disagrees that the dispute is minor, a court can decide whether to classify the issue as minor or major.

Minor disputes are returned for an arbitration decision. Major disputes can lead to renegotiation of the contract, lawsuits or a strike.

“Arbitration is used if there is a question over interpretation of a contract,” Mr. Tiberi said. “There is no question here. It is clearly a major dispute.”

In an Aug. 4 letter to David Siegel, US Airways’ chief executive officer, the machinists union made a clear threat to strike over the issue.

“Any attempt to subcontract this work, which falls under the jurisdiction of the IAM-US Airways Agreement, shall be considered a major dispute under the Railway Labor Act,” said the letter from Robert Roach Jr., the machinists union’s general vice president.

Pittsburgh International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport are the second-largest operations hubs for US Airways.

Labor strife with the mechanics arises as US Airways announced another round of layoffs this week.

The airline plans to lay off another 190 flight attendants, according to the Flight Attendants Union. The company laid off 890 flight attendants in May and June to cut costs after war in Iraq reduced the number of customers.

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