Pilots at United Airlines and American Airlines are due to vote in coming weeks on new labor contracts that in some cases offer the first significant raises in almost a decade.
The pay gains reflect better financial times at airlines, and partially offset years of concessions the pilots made as airlines went through bankruptcies and endured huge losses.
But other groups of workers at U.S. airlines are not being treated as generously. The carriers, citing high risks the recovery in their fortunes could stall, are not prepared to improve contracts across the board, industry experts and airline executives say. That means labor relations could remain rocky.
Indeed, flight attendants for US Airways Group voted overwhelmingly last week to authorize a strike, saying the carrier's latest contract offer still reflects the days when airline profits were in free-fall.
We don't want to strike, leaders of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said, but flight attendants still shoulder the sacrifices forced through bankruptcy a decade ago.
US airlines have posted $5.2 billion in profits since 2010, according to the International Air Transport Association. Many forecasts call for the industry to make money again this year and in 2013.
Still, many labor agreements date from 2001 to 2009, when U.S. airlines lost $53 billion cumulatively, according to trade group Airlines for America. During that extraordinary period, the financial crisis and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks pummeled the aviation industry.
And the current rebound could easily collapse from a combination of rising oil prices, a U.S. recession and further economic weakness in Europe or China, the airlines and industry experts say. A large-scale terrorist attack remains a concern too.
AIRLINES STILL FEARFUL
The airlines are still fearful because they realize that so much of what goes on is beyond their control, said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who follows airlines.
The major carriers are trying to reduce the uncertainty in the industry by signing the most crucial and most expensive group to long-term agreements, he added.
The contrast between the treatment of pilots and other airline workers is playing out in a variety of ways. American Airlines, for example, is trying to stop a vote set to begin Dec. 4 by its passenger service agents on whether to join a union. It says at l east half of t he eligible workers didn't show interest in joining a union, as required by a law that took effect this