DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Aloha Airlines pilots protested yesterday against the company's plan to seek the termination of labor contracts and the defined-benefit pension plan during a hearing that begins today in bankruptcy court. The picket was mostly up and down Punchbowl.
Tensions rise at Aloha Air
Some pilots are threatening to walk off the job if the carrier gets approval to terminate their contract
On the eve of a key bankruptcy hearing today, some picketing Aloha Airlines pilots threatened yesterday to walk off the job and ground the airline if Aloha wins the court's permission to terminate the pilots' union contract.
But the official word from the union was far more measured.
Although the union has not taken an official vote on whether the pilots would walk off the job as a group, some pilots have voiced the threat as a high-stakes game of brinkmanship with Aloha's management nears a head today on Bishop Street.
Aloha's management has said that for the airline to survive, pilots must agree to a change in work rules and a cut in their benefits, which the carrier calls "one of the most lucrative ... in the airline industry." The pilots, meanwhile, have accused management of wanting nothing less than to terminate their contracts.
With the game of chicken becoming increasingly intense, approximately 90 pilots marched yesterday outside Aloha's headquarters at Restaurant Row. Some carried signs that said: "No contracts, no pilots. No pilots, no Aloha."
Steve Brenessel, a spokesman for Aloha's retired pilots, said the pilots have gotten nowhere in talks with Aloha's president and chief executive, David Banmiller. The pilots, he said, are running out of options.
"Our ace in the hole is to shut down the airline, literally," Brenessel said.
But the union's leadership was far more muted yesterday.
"We continue to negotiate towards a consensual agreement; however, the company continues to ask for way too much," said David Bird, chairman of Air Line Pilots Association's Master Executive Council 80. "We're reviewing all of our options."
Union representatives and Aloha lawyers are scheduled to meet today for a hearing that will determine the fate of the contracts of approximately 3,100 union employees.
As part of its plan to reorganize its financial obligations, Aloha has asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Faris to let the carrier terminate its employee contracts and pension plans. With the threat of contract termination looming, the airline has negotiated tentative agreements with approximately 2,500 unionized workers, including mechanics, inspectors, reservation agents, ramp workers and dispatchers, said Stuart Glauberman, an Aloha spokesman.
But the airline's flight attendants and pilots have held out.
During yesterday's demonstration, Brenessel said Banmiller has rejected all of the concessions that the pilots have proposed. These, Brenessel said, include an offer to freeze the current pension plan, making it available only to pilots already retired, and to create for active pilots a defined-contribution plan that would be cheaper for the airline to finance.
Brenessel said Banmiller has been unwilling to negotiate with the pilots or to allow the pilots to communicate directly with Aloha's main investor, Yucaipa Corporate Initiatives Fund I LP.
"We've been negotiating a month with those people, and Banmiller refuses anything but an absolute termination," of the contracts and pensions, Brenessel said.
The pilots' demonstration came two days after Aloha flight attendants represented by the Association of Flight Attendants voted unanimously to express "no confidence" in Banmiller and his colleagues. Although the vote had no practical consequence, it showed the flight attendants were assuming a tough posture leading into today's hearing.
"Their inability to manage the company out of bankruptcy after receiving millions of dollars in concessions from Aloha's employees is unbelievable," said Peggy Gordon, a union leader representing the flight attendants. "They continue to take our hard-earned money, then turn around and ask for more. Enough is enough."
In a statement yesterday, Aloha said it was "hopeful we'll reach agreements with our flight crews."
The airline said its pilots "enjoy one of the most lucrative benefits packages in the airline industry, having both a defined-benefit pension and a substantial defined-contribution pension plan." Aloha said it has offered to increase its contributions to the pilots' defined-contribution plan, but it is also seeking changes to their work rules.
In an age of rising fuel costs and increased competition, Aloha management said it has no choice but to seek the changes.
Aloha pilots say they, too, are running out of options.
Standing near the picket line yesterday, Walt Kaneakua, a retired Air Force colonel who is now an Aloha pilot, said it was deplorable that pilots dedicated to flying planes safely, on schedule, in all kinds of weather had been forced to play the only card they had left.
"To get these guys to come out in public on a sidewalk is hideous," Kaneakua said. "We don't do this. We fly airplanes. We stay on task."
Kaneakua said he was skeptical that the pilots would walk off the job, given the nature of their collective character. For them to do so, he said, "things would have to be so bad that there's no way out."