Allegiant workers seek union vote

Although Allegiant Travel Co.'s operating style often differs widely from other airlines, it now faces an increasingly common issue in the industry: a looming union election.

On Oct. 28, Transport Workers Union of America organizers filed petitions with the National Mediation Board to organize the approximately 400 flight attendants at non-union Allegiant. The union said it obtained signatures from an "overwhelming majority" of the flight attendants, but declined to disclose a number.

If the board certifies enough of the petitions, and management already expects it will, then the election could take place by the end of the year.

Allegiant has long touted its low costs and flexible operations as an advantage over other airlines that have at least some union employees. It credits that flexibility and cost structure with helping the airline stay profitable during the recession as the industry overall lost billions of dollars. But company executives said they will drop routes or airports if the airline's financial performance does falter.

"We think that we will be successful" in keeping the airline nonunion, said President and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Levy. "We will take the time and effort to persuade employees that they don't need to pay union dues to get the compensation and wages and work rules they want."

One flight attendant, who asked not to be identified, singled out work rules, not money, as the driving force behind the union effort. "We want defined work rules and to get rid of favoritism," the flight attendant said. "After four years of them not listening to us, we thought this was the best route to take."

In 2006, Allegiant beat back an organizing effort by a different union. According to the flight attendant, that election helped bring about in-house panels to discuss on-the-job issues.

However, the flight attendant noted, "If we didn't like this company, we all would have left by now."

The Transport Workers Union has also launched organizing efforts at JetBlue and Virgin America. A different union recently won an election among 3,000 passenger service agents at the Piedmont Airlines subsidiary of US Airways, while Delta defeated an attempt to organize 20,000 flight attendants.

A key ruling by the National Mediation Board early this year has jump-started some of the union drives. For more than seven decades, unions had to obtain a majority of votes among a potential bargaining unit in order to win; abstentions counted as a "no" vote. Now, a union needs to obtain only a majority of employees who vote.

This has turned election strategies on their heads, said TWU organizer Steve Roberts, who has spearheaded some organizing drives on the Strip. Previously, an airline's management would ask employees to tear up their ballots, but now go all out for a high turnout.

Analysts covering Allegiant did not address the potential impact of a union on Allegiant's future results.

But Levy said the company would be able to continue strongly but within bounds. "There are just some things we will not negotiate away no matter who it is," he said, but did not give specifics.

Last month produced the company's most recent example of how quickly it can make a move when it decided to uproot the flights that went to Orlando International Airport and return them to Orlando Sanford International Airport, located in a suburb about 40 miles north of the Walt Disney World complex.

Allegiant decided last year to move 10 routes from Sanford to Orlando International, partly because of the expectation that passengers would prefer the closer proximity to Disney but also because rival AirTran Airways served six of the routes from Orlando International. But Allegiant announced last month it would drop Orlando International after several months of higher operating costs not covered by higher fares, customer preferences for Sanford and not wanting to go head-to-head with Southwest Airlines, which has announced it will buy AirTran.

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at toreiley or 702-387-5290.