United Aer Lingus - a Trans-Atlantic Engagement

November 2011 is the deadline for the EU and US to reach a more comprehensive air transport agreement. Commercial pressures are growing on both sides of the transatlantic market. While some airlines wait for the final agreement to be signed, others prepare the ground to establish a trans-Atlantic airline, which is the strategy chosen by United Airlines (UAL) and Aer Lingus (ALT). In March 2010 they will start operations between Washington and Madrid with Aer Lingus A330s and flight crew using the rights created by the existing EU-US agreement. This is a first step which may be followed by the two companies creating a joint venture; the engagement before the wedding.

The initial plan proposed by the companies excluded current ALT and UAL pilots, and instead foresaw the use of contract pilots. This was despite both Irish and US based pilots recently granting significant concessions to help their companies through difficult trading conditions!
After a long fight and a ravaging period of negotiations, the Irish Pilots' Association IALPA managed to ensure ALT pilots have access to this work. Pilots will have the right to refuse to transfer to the new Washington base but if they accept the position, they will have a 3-5 year contract under different terms and conditions. IALPA has had to work very hard to obtain this concession - but has succeeded.

There are many challenges concerning the representation of Washington based pilots. Irish law is not designed to cover operations of employees based outside of the country. Most important is the implementation of the Aer Lingus Collective Labour Agreement. How can, for instance, schemes on FTL designed on the basis of a European regulation, be adapted to the American FTL system? In case of dispute, how will IALPA fight the case to defend its members? There are still many legal questions in this type of Trans National operation, and many affect pilots' rights to be collectively represented by a union.

The first stage EU-US agreement has widened market opportunities for the airlines. However, the legislation that regulates employment has not been widened or adapted to the transatlantic, cross-jurisdictional nature of the operations. It is short-sighted to undermine proven and effective collective bargaining structures, thus damaging the competitiveness of the European aviation industry. The current EU-US negotiations cannot allow these very real issues to remain unaddressed. ECA has put a lot of effort in achieving this goal and will continue to work until the European Union and its Member States understand that when they open an economic market, they must adapt the social and labour legislation accordingly. Liberalisation should not ignore the social rights of European workers but rather be a way to create greater opportunities for both employers and employees.