The union for AirTran's pilots has gone public, seeking public support, in a dispute with airline management's over its five-day suspension without pay of a pilot for briefly attending a circus while in uniform. Here's what happened, according to the National Pilots Assn.'s press release and Tim Baker, a union spokesman I spoke to this morning. Here's the (relatively) short version.
The union, Baker said, had purchased a bunch of tickets for the circus for its members and their families. Baker said the pilot decided to drop his wife and kids off at the circus on his way to work because his wife didn't know the area well and the pilot, an Air Force Reservist who is about to be deployed, was trying to maximize his remaining time with his family. Baker said the pilot did go inside the circus with his family for 10 to 15 minutes before leaving for work. The union was taking photos at the circus for posting on its Web site and the pilot appeared in one of the crowd shots, which somehow came to the attention of management and led to the suspension.
The union said the airline's work rules allow pilots to wear their uniform while commuting to and from work, and AirTran is overreacting. AirTran' issued a terse press release of its own a few hours later declaring, essentially, that rules are rules. It also declared that AirTran's rules prohibiting pilots from wearing uniforms to a non-work, "union-sponsored" events are standard for the industry.
It seems to me, however, that there must be more to this story. Who initiated the complaint, and why is management taking such a hard line? I've seen pilots from various airlines wear their uniforms at congressional hearings with management's blessing. They've also worn them on picket lines or other protests while not on duty, although I guess it could be argued in both instances that both situations are work-related, in a way. Baker noted to me that pilots also often wear their uniforms as a sign of respect when attending a pilot's funeral.
Baker said the union's supposition is that AirTran is taking a hard line because pilot contract negotiations have been dragging on for four years and have been in mediation for the past year, and management does not want to see pilots picketing in uniform. That theory is expanded upon here. AirTran, for its part, isn't commenting beyond its press release, so I don't know if the union is leaving any critical information out of its account or if it has a history of problems with this particular pilot.
There's some good news for the pilot, though. Baker said the union is going to cover his salary for the five-day suspension. The union is still pursuing its appeal, however--internally and then by filing a grievance if necessary--to try to get it off of his employment record and "clear his name," Baker said.