US airline unions continue to press for higher pay and better working conditions and are warning they intend to link the issues of work duty hours and fatigue with compensation demands.

Air Line Pilots Association president John Prater tells Airline Business: "They cut the pilots ranks too much just as they cut compensation too much. We can't go on flying the absolute legal maximum number of hours."

Prater says pilot workload and fatigue played a major role in a slowdown that forced Northwest Airlines to cancel as many as 12% of its flights in June and July and suspend some routes as pilot absenteeism, at 80% above 2006 levels, reached unexpected highs. Bob Mann, a consultant with RW Mann and Associates, says: "Northwest was counting on pilots volunteering overtime, which depends on a level of pilot enthusiasm. That clearly wasn't forthcoming and after the pay cuts and furloughs, a lack of enthusiasm is understandable."

While Northwest did not explicitly say that the pilot absenteeism was organised, Mann says many would interpret it as a protest. He adds that absenteeism could become an issue in disputes at other US airlines.

Indeed, the newly elected leader of the independent pilot group at American Airlines, Allied Pilots Association president Lloyd Hill, warns that at American "cost-cutting has resulted in an airline that is insufficiently staffed to cover weather-related disruptions". Running on a militant platform, Hill ousted long-time APA leader Ralph Hunter in June. Hunter had charged that Hill helped organise a 1999 pilot sickout and slowdown at American that courts later found to be improper.

Other disputes include a disagreement at US Airways over seniority for pilots at the carrier and one of its predecessors, America West Airlines. Pilots want the two groups combined under a new and more lucrative contract. At each of these carriers, top managers have received large bonuses, which Prater says "just makes it easier to make the point about restoring standards".

Source: Flight International