American Airlines Pilots Oust Union President

Pilots at AMR's American Airlines, unhappy over pay and angry at company management, ousted their union's top officers and elected a slate of newcomers who promised to take a harder line against the nation's largest carrier.

Miami-based pilot Lloyd Hill defeated incumbent President Ralph Hunter by more than a 2-to-1 margin in a runoff, and challengers also unseated the Allied Pilots Association's next two ranking officials.

Hill said immediately that the union's proposal for a 30.5 percent pay increase next year "is not nearly enough."

Hill charged that Hunter and other union leaders were too cozy with company management. Hunter's job was clearly in jeopardy after he got only 25% of the vote during an election in May and barely made the runoff.

The first test for the new officers will come quickly -- the union is in the early stages of negotiations for a new contract in which it expects large raises.

Under Hunter, the union proposed pay raises and big signing bonuses. Hunter also organized protests against $160 million in stock awards given in April to more than 800 management employees.

Privately, airline officials viewed the protests and pay demands as part of the union leaders' campaign to stay in office by appearing tough. If so, the plan came up short against challengers who took a harder anti-company stance.

Pilots voted by mail, with ballots due Wednesday. The votes were counted at union headquarters in Fort Worth, with federal officials overseeing the process.

Hill got 4,573 votes, or 68 percent, to Hunter's 2,180. Dallas-based pilot Tom Westbrook defeated Vice President Sam Bertling by an even larger margin, and San Francisco-based pilot Bill Haug defeated incumbent Secretary-Treasurer Jim Eaton.

The union represents more than 9,000 current pilots at American.

Trying too Hard for Middle Ground

In an interview Wednesday night, Hill said he wants the company to succeed but current union leaders had tried too hard to find a middle ground with management instead of representing pilots.

"I probably worry a little less about the company because I'm sure they can take care of themselves," he said.

Hill said the union's pay raise proposal made last month isn't enough to offset 23% pay cuts off "already substandard" wages in 2003.

Hill didn't offer another figure but said managers had "set the bar at a high level when they reward themselves about a quarter of a billion dollars in the space of one year" _ referring to the stock executives got as a reward for the rising share price of American's parent, AMR Corp.

The new president served on the union board from 1998 to 2000 and met Chairman and Chief Executive Gerard Arpey a couple of times but doesn't know him well.

"On a personal note, I think he's a nice man," Hill said. "I think his business philosophy is not much different" from earlier AMR CEOs.

Mike Boyd, an airline industry consultant who has worked for the union, said executive bonuses created the union anger that elected Hill, and airline officials will regret it because they'll have more trouble working with Hill.

"Management really has screwed this up. Two years ago they had collaboration" with the union, Boyd said. "Today, I don't even think they're going to have cooperation."

American Airlines has a long history of troubled labor-management relations, including mass sickouts and a brief strike in the 1990s.

But the two sides came closer together in 2003, when American and AMR teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. American's three unions accepted wage and benefit cuts. Pilots were the strongest supporters of concessions, which they viewed as a necessary sacrifice to save their pensions from being wiped out in bankruptcy.

The labor peace lasted until early 2006, when workers still dealing with wage cuts were outraged to learn the size of stock awards for about 800 management employees, which grew to about $160 million this year.

Wednesday's election "is a clear signal that the pilots' union doesn't have a problem going back to the bad old days of labor-management relations," said airline consultant Stuart Klaskin.

"They feel like back then, they at least had some clout," he said. "In the last couple years, they feel they've been marginalized."