Dallas Morning News
FORT WORTH — A leader of the union representing American Airlines mechanics said a lawsuit accusing its members of slowing down work "came as a shock" during testimony in federal court Monday.
Gary Peterson, a Transport Workers Union vice president based at DFW International Airport, said he and other union leaders tried to disprove accusations that they told members to slow down work and turn down overtime to increase pressure on American as the parties negotiate a new combined contract after four years of talks.
"No one from American Airlines reached out to us before this about a slowdown," he said.
The two sides laid out arguments in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth. Lawyers and witnesses for American contend statistics since February show that a backlog of maintenance work can be pinned on illegal union collusion. They also keyed on signs and internet posts at various locations throughout the country earlier this year that American interpreted as a call to action for maintenance workers.
The world's largest airline estimates as many as 88,000 customers have had flights delayed or canceled because of the alleged slowdowns.
Lawyers for TWU and the International Association of Machinists tried to poke holes in American's statistician expert witness, arguing that an increase in flight delays and maintenance issues predated a breakdown in contract negotiations in February.
It will likely be more than a month before Judge John McBryde decides what to do in the case, based on a timeline he granted after hearing Monday's arguments. McBryde could grant a permanent injunction to the Fort Worth-based carrier and put union leaders under close scrutiny during the entirety of contract negotiations. If that doesn't work, American may have to find another way, such as financial penalties.
American's case leaned heavily on testimony by David Seymour, senior vice president for integrated operations, that the number of planes not available to fly after overnight maintenance work had nearly doubled during the last five months compared to previous years.
American also pointed to the fact that it's had problems filling opportunities for overtime pay, remote work at other locations and letting maintenance workers skip lunch for overtime pay.
"Historically, we've never had a problem filling overtime when we offer it," Seymour said. "We haven't gotten the same productivity we've gotten in the past."
TWU lawyer Mark Richard hammered Seymour on whether the airline had disciplined individual mechanics, to which Seymour answered no.
Instead, American's argument relied on a broad analysis of maintenance delays. It brought in airline operations statistician Darin Lee as an expert witness who testified that data showed workers were almost certainly to blame for slowdowns. He cited data on planes out of service after overnight work and on unfilled overtime. He said large hubs such as Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., had days when all maintenance workers refused overtime requests.
Union lawyers countered with their own statistician, Christian Tregillis, who said American was overstating backups in the maintenance system. In fact, he said, pilots were putting in a higher number of work orders.
Under a temporary restraining order McBryde issued June 14, union leaders were required to tell members they weren't endorsing a slowdown, discouraging overtime or off-site work assignments or doing anything else to delay or cancel flights.
Peterson said he and other union leaders had gone to great lengths to stop any coordinated work slowdowns. He said any internet posts or signs encouraging members to slow down work were unauthorized and immediately removed.
"We did everything we could to make sure we did what we were required to do by the court," Peterson said.