WVU researcher develops methodology to merge operations of world’s largest airline group
This is an all-too familiar site to frequent travelers. The plane you are scheduled to fly on has a technical or maintenance issue. The airline is scrambling to find another plane despite the fact that one of its partners has a plane sitting idle at the next gate. Thanks to West Virginia University Teaching Assistant Professor Pete Gall, that may be coming to an end for the world’s largest airline group.
“American Airlines has 6,700 flights a day to 54 different countries,” said Gall, himself a former American Airlines (formerly USAirways) pilot. “By merging, airlines gain the synergistic benefits from merging operations. Instead of competing against each other, they are now on the same team. Airline A might have an airplane that’s sitting in an airport for half a day without being used. By merging systems, you could get another crew onsite and get another eight hours of productivity out of that aircraft.”
Working with a team of WVU students, Gall developed a sophisticated mathematic model—dubbed the Gall Hybrid Methodology—which allowed American Airlines to integrate the flight operations of three major airlines (American, USAirways and American West Airlines), more than 15,000 pilots and nearly 1,000 jet aircraft.
It seems simple, unless you’re a pilot, and then seniority becomes a factor. Forbes magazine is quoted as saying, “Pilot integration is the stickiest wicket in the airline business.”
American Airlines, for example, had 454 Boeing 777 captains, which Gall said is a very coveted senior position.
“When you merge all of these groups together you can imagine the amount of animosity that can be created,” Gall said. “For example, if a pilot from America West, which has never operated an aircraft as big as the 777, has more seniority than a senior 777 captain at American Airlines, that person is booted out of the captain’s seat.”
And then there are furloughed pilots, many who don’t have to come back to work when recalled.
“They can bypass the recall, which causes the airline to hire new pilots to make up for the furloughed pilots that are declining recall,” Gall explained. “How do you treat those pilots? How do you dictate where they should fall? There were American West pilots who were furloughed, then hired at American, placing them are on two different seniority lists.”
Vince Spada, a graduate student in aerospace engineering from Buffalo, New York, worked as part of Gall’s team, creating an easy-to-use graphic user interface for the Gall Hybrid Methodology.
“Dr. Gall and I worked closely together to convert his method into a computer algorithm made up of complex calculations,” Spada said. “I have gained an incredible amount of programming experience during this project, which will directly benefit the research for my master’s and eventually doctoral degrees. I have also developed vital leadership skills while working with other WVU engineering students on the project.
The team spent many months looking at the age, date of hire, the plane the pilot was currently flying, the seat the pilot was holding and any periods of furlough that may have occurred during the pilot’s career. Each pilot was given a longevity, status and category score, which required layers of complex calculations. These calculations dictated their place on the seniority list.
The merger of these lists are also covered by law.
The McCaskill-Bond Amendment to the Federal Aviation Act states that when airlines merge into a single carrier, the seniority lists of the merged entities must be integrated in a “fair and equitable” manner, which can mean different things to different people. Union members of the acquired airline must be integrated into the seniority lists for the surviving entity and its unions, not just placed at the bottom of the list.
“The amendment requires that a board of arbitrators be appointed and they hold a series of federally mandated hearings, where they hear from all the interested parties,” said Gall, who spent several weeks testifying before the board during hearings that took place in 2015 and 2016. ““When it’s all over, the board makes the decision, adopts an approach on how the operations will be merged and it becomes law.”
The arbitration board issued its final report, which supported Gall’s methodology, in September 2016.
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