On a level playing field, American Airlines mechanics and related work groups can compete and perform superior aircraft maintenance compared with anyone in the world, James Little says.
The international president of the Transport Workers Union, Little said the proof is in American's bankruptcy in which the company - even after recent job cuts - is committed post-bankruptcy to doing more in-house aircraft maintenance work than any major U.S. carrier.
Little was in Tulsa on Tuesday to meet with TWU officials and the Tulsa World editorial board.
At American, 4,600 TWU mechanics and related work on airframe, engine and component maintenance compared with 3,800 at non-union Delta Air Lines, 1,500 at United Airlines, 1,000 at US Airways, 650 at Continental Airlines and 300 at Southwest Airlines, company documents show.
At American, 31 heavy aircraft maintenance lines, mostly in Tulsa, are operating today compared with six at US Airways, three at Southwest, one each at United and Continental and none at Southwest, American officials said.
"Since 2003, our guys have spent time becoming more efficient - turning aircraft (maintenance, from base arrival to departure) in 12 days," which is a fraction of the turn time at other airlines, Little said.
"The challenge for us is to rachet up the base to capacity, to continue to get the company to take advantage of the space available in Tulsa," Little said. "Also, to get the (federal) legislature to realize that the base is a significant part of the community, and it would be a shame to see it eroded by (maintenance) work being moved overseas."
Following American parent AMR Corp.'s bankruptcy filing in November 2011, the company said it needed to cut 13,000 employees, including 2,700 in Tulsa, reduce annual operating costs by $2 billion annually and boost revenue by $1 billion a year to emerge from bankruptcy and compete successfully in the airline industry.
The company has completed much of its restructuring, rejecting or renegotiating aircraft and real estate leases, cutting debt and trimming operations.
But last week, instead of laying off thousands of American employees in Tulsa, American cut 43 TWU workers.
Previously, 30 Tulsa-based TWU mechanics and related workers were laid off, TWU Local 514 executives said.
The difference between American's original targeted layoffs and those to date were made up by dozens of licensed mechanics accepting reduced wages as overhaul support mechanics, 773 mechanics accepting early-retirement incentives and 70 mechanics and related workers accepting positions at other bases, union officials said.
But there would be more work at the Tulsa base and other U.S. airlines if the federal government would impose the same standards on domestic third-party and foreign maintenance providers, TWU executives said.
The Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation has found there are 4,159 domestic and 709 foreign aircraft repair stations certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration to perform maintenance on U.S. aircraft.
Yet, there are about 100 FAA inspectors for the 709 aircraft repair stations outside the United States, compared with about 4,000 FAA inspectors for 4,159 U.S. repair stations, the IG report found.
"For example, over a three-year period, CMO (FAA certificate management office) inspectors for an air carrier inspected only four of its 15 substantial maintenance providers," the IG said in a September 2008 report to the FAA. "Among those uninspected was a major foreign engine repair facility. CMO inspectors did not visit this facility until five years after FAA approved this facility for carrier use - even though the repair station had worked on 39 of the 53 engines repaired for the air carrier."
Little said it gets worse.
Unlike American and other U.S. airlines and their mechanics, foreign aircraft repair facilities are not required to undergo unannounced FAA inspections or perform security background checks and drug and alcohol testing on mechanics, federal documents show.
"They need to have the same oversight by the FAA as our facilities," Little said. "When you look at overseas maintenance, the FAA's not there. So how effective is their oversight?
"And there is a cost for safety. When the work comes back to the U.S. and it has to be re-worked or components have to be changed out, that (foreign) work is not documented. It's only documented in the U.S."
Little believes American must merge with another carrier because its route system and domestic feed is not adequate to support its international network.
The TWU and American's Allied Pilots Association and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants have endorsed a merger with US Airways.
The three unions last spring agreed to term sheets with US Airways that would be effective contracts in the event of a merger between American and Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways.
"We don't think American can stand alone," Little said. "Even (American CEO Thomas) Horton has said a merger sometime in the future is inevitable."
Asked which course is preferable - merger within, or outside, bankruptcy, merger with US Airways or another carrier - for the TWU and American labor, Little was equivocal.
"There are too many open ends to make a judgment," Little said. "How much equity (from each airline) is involved? We haven't seen the total business plan for American. US Airways is committed to build up Tulsa, to keep it at 90 percent capacity. But US Airways doesn't know what they're committing to - the (labor) deals were made without the data they got in the non-disclosure agreement."
In August, the two airlines signed non-disclosure agreements under which they may exchange proprietary financial data.
The non-disclosure agreements are due to expire in January, officials said.