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Layoffs and Labor Disputes Add to Airline Struggles

Labor strife took center stage in the ongoing airline melodrama this week. On July 16, US Airways pilots alleged in a newspaper ad that they are being pressured by airline management to cut the amount of fuel they are carrying, thereby lightening the weight of the plane and increasing its fuel efficiency. Eight senior pilots and the pilots’ union have filed complaints with the FAA (which was also in the news earlier this week) saying that US Airways urged them to carry less fuel than they thought was safe. In a full-page ad in USA Today on July 16, the pilots’ union accused the airline of “a program of intimidation to pressure your captain to reduce fuel loads.” The airline, of course, denies this.

Elsewhere, American revealed it will cut roughly 1,300 mechanic positions as it grounds planes in the hopes of offsetting high fuel costs. This follows news of the airline’s severe losses for the second quarter, and CEO Gerald Arpey’s admission that “We believe the airline industry cannot continue, in its current form, at today’s record fuel prices.”

As you can probably guess, labor issues such as these certainly don’t improve the industry’s precarious position, let alone a given airline’s image. But while you can excuse the airlines to a point, considering the cost of oil (“The increase in fuel prices has been nothing short of breathtaking,” said Tom Horton, CFO of American’s parent, AMR), the fact is that the airlines’ desperate attempts to cope with unprecedented fuel prices are hurting the people they need most: its customers.

It’s frustrating enough that we’re charged a fee for seemingly every aspect of flying, but as layoffs and labor tensions continue to accumulate, one has to assume the level of service we receive will decline accordingly. When a group of pilots accuses its employer of intimidation, you know you’re dealing with some unhappy people. And, of course, there is the issue of safety. Do you want your pilot preoccupied by the nagging fear that he doesn’t have as much fuel as he’d like? The easiest thing for a customer to do is say “enough is enough” and stop flying, and indeed many travelers can’t even afford to fly if they wanted to. But the sad fact is the airlines need us if they want to survive.

The industry made its own bed, and now it has to sleep in it. Does that mean we have to sleep in it, too?

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