Polar Air Cargo to park older 747s; begin pilot lay-offs

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By Mary Kirby in Philadelphia

Freight carrier Polar Air Cargo will park its remaining fleet of Boeing 747-100 and -200 freighters from 1 July in a move that could result in the loss of 100 crew.

In an internal memorandum to staff obtained last week by Flight's 24h news and data service Air Transport Intelligence, president and chief executive of parent company Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (AAWW) Jeffrey Erickson says the aircraft “are not profitable in any of our service segments other than AMC [military air mobility command services] and charter, our most volatile market segments”.

He also notes that these constraints and increased competition has impelled Polar to cut its fleet of older 747s. AAWW is currently merging Polar, which was acquired in November 2001, with its Atlas Air subsidiary.

A Pratt & Whitney JT9D-powered 747-200F (N921FT) was sold two weeks ago, while another JT9D-powered 747-200F (N920FT) is currently parked and awaiting sub-lease, says Erickson in the memo. Polar’s only 747-100F aircraft (N858FT) has “always been scheduled to be parked once its remaining economic life expires, which will be in June when its next heavy check is due”, he adds.

According to Flight fleet database ACAS, N920FT was built in 1980 and is owned by GE Commercial Aviation Services (GECAS), while N858FT is a 1970 model owned by Polar.

This reduction will be followed with the retirement of Polar’s remaining four 747-200s by July. “Unfortunately, given the crew inefficiencies, it is just not economically viable to operate a Classic fleet of this size. Faced with this reality, we are left with no choice but to park the Polar Classic fleet effective 1 July,” says Erickson.

Polar will retain its fleet of five Boeing 747-400s, which are used for scheduled service. AAWW’s president and chief executive says he will move one Atlas-operated 747-400 - which is currently being utilized nearly full-time to support Polar scheduled service in South America - back to Polar. This will return Polar’s -400 fleet to the 2005 level of six aircraft and will have “the positive effect of reducing the number of crewmembers to be furloughed”, says Erickson.

However, the move will result in too many crew remaining at Atlas. Erickson says the company “will absorb this overage as part of normal attrition that is projected to occur in 2006”.

Nonetheless, a significant amount of pilot redundancies at Polar are expected. Erickson explains that there will be no flight engineer positions remaining at the freight carrier, although flight engineers who have the qualifications and seniority to hold a pilot position will be awarded those positions as part of the system bid.

Those who do not have these qualifications will either be furloughed or laid off, he says, adding that the company’s preference is to furlough the flight engineers “since once the merger [of Atlas and Polar] is completed and we have a single integrated seniority list we would like them to have the opportunity for recall should flight engineer vacancies occur down the road on the merged carrier”.

Bobb Henderson, chairman of the Polar division of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), recently alerted members to the company’s plans. Henderson says that the fleet reduction will result in the furlough of about 100 crewmembers.

Polar pilots launched a strike on 16 September after long-running mediated contract talks failed. The company responded by returning three of the carrier’s dry-leased 747 freighters to Atlas, and put a further two aircraft up for sale or lease. At that time, AAWW said the remaining seven 747Fs operated by Polar were “in the process” of being placed “in other uses, including dry leases”. But on October 2, Polar crewmembers ratified a tentative contract agreement, setting the stage for the merger.

“This strike was unnecessary and could have easily been avoided, says Henderson. Needless to say, management is now taking its frustrations out on the Polar Air Cargo crewmembers which will result in a furlough of approximately 100 Polar crewmembers," he adds.

An Atlas spokesman could not be reached for comment.

 

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