MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
American Airlines was in court today in New York City, asking a bankruptcy judge for changes to the company's labor contracts. American has been hemorrhaging money for years and wants to lower its costs to compete. But the airline's unions say changing the contracts would be unfair.
And as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, they're putting their weight behind an aggressive new merger bid.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: With U.S. Airways breathing down its neck, making nice with its unions as well as its creditors, American Airlines came to New York City today to ask a federal bankruptcy judge for relief. Mostly, it wants relief from its unions. Thirteen thousand jobs would be eliminated under its reorganization proposal. In the courthouse courtyard, American spokesman Bruce Hicks says something's got to give.
BRUCE HICKS: The fact is that our labor costs are the highest in the industry. While other airlines have gone through the same restructuring process over the last 10 years and are all sustainably profitable now, we continue to be the only airline - major airline losing money. We've lost $10 billion in the last 10 years.
GOODWYN: American's labor unions respond, don't blame us, blame yourselves. In 2003, the pilots, mechanics and flight attendants gave back $1.8 billion in wages and benefits. They were furious when they later discovered American management would keep its million-dollar bonuses unchanged. And then, of course, there's Southwest Airlines down the block. Southwest is the most unionized airline in the country and pays its pilots some of the industry's highest wages. And they've been making a profit every quarter for decades. Hicks admits that's true, but...
HICKS: Southwest has a number of great advantages, particularly on their work rules and productivity side, as well as the single fleet type. They're a terrific airline with great results, but that's not the contracts that we have.
GOODWYN: Then last week came a potential game changer. U.S. Airways made a sudden uninvited appearance and began successfully courting American's unions and its creditors. U.S. Airways told the unions there was no need for the labor cuts to be so draconian. After 30 years of contentious relations between management and its unions, it's not going to take much to convince American's pilots, mechanics and flight attendants to open their collective arms to a new suitor.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We got sold out.
GOODWYN: In a rally outside the courthouse this morning, Angelo Cucuzza, a ramp worker for 21 years, clarified his feelings.
ANGELO CUCUZZA: It's a sad day. It really is a sad day. And I'm still struggling to understand why we've become the bad guy. And I mean, union workers in general, in this society, it doesn't make any sense to me. You know, like many of my brothers and sisters, I've got a family. I've got three children at home. You know, we struggle to make ends meet here in New York City, but we do OK. And then you've got this company here that wants to take 9,000 of my TW brothers' jobs. That's one-third of our workforce.
GOODWYN: As $40-an-hour mechanics protested in front of the courthouse and $1,000-an-hour bankruptcy lawyers made opening statements inside, American's flying public was walking by. Sarah Hartong has preferred customer status. She wants the workers to keep their jobs and for American to be profitable. Can she have both?
SARAH HARTONG: You know, it's a hard industry. They keep raising prices on consumers, but their bottom line is not looking great. Less travelers, gas prices. It's - I don't envy them. I don't envy either position.
GOODWYN: This week, American management will make its case to the bankruptcy judge, then a two-week break while management and labor make one last stab at an agreement. The company has until September to work this out. If not, all other offers will be considered. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.