A TWA jet taking off from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Jan. 19, 2001, is framed in the windows of the terminal just above the American Airlines counter. The airlines merged later that year. Photo by Kevin Manning of the Post-Dispatch.

ST. LOUIS • Negotiations between American Airlines and its pilots union could result in loss of seniority protection for hundreds of former TWA pilots based in St. Louis, according to a federal lawsuit.

Three former TWA pilots who now fly for American filed suit last week in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against the Fort Worth-based airline and the Allied Pilots Association.

AMR Corp., American's parent company, filed for bankruptcy protection in November. The three pilots' lawsuit contends that, in its negotiations with the Allied Pilots Association, American has "represented that it intends to close its St. Louis base."

Closure of the crew base would eliminate a protective "fence" in TWA's former hub city, which established a minimum number of captain and first officer positions here, the suit alleges. The formula is tied to staffing levels in Chicago and Dallas.

American Airlines officials could not be reached late Tuesday.

American purchased TWA's assets out of bankruptcy in 2001. According to the lawsuit, the Allied Pilots Association and American agreed to a supplement to the collective bargaining agreement that cost TWA pilots all or part of their seniority.

About 1,200 former TWA pilots were stapled to the bottom of the American seniority list at the time "and given no credit for their TWA seniority," according to the lawsuit. The remaining 1,100 pilots retained a fraction of their seniority when they were integrated into the American seniority list.

Supplement CC, as it is known, provided for a protective "fence" in St. Louis, which gave former TWA pilots some preference in bidding for flights at the St. Louis base.

Meantime, American has dramatically reduced its flight schedule at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport over the past decade. The carrier now offers 30 daily flights out of Lambert.

Without the protective fence, which still is in effect, about 650 former TWA pilots would have to bid for routes against 8,000 American pilots based on "heavily reduced seniority," the suit states. It would lead to the demotion of former TWA captains to the rank of first officer. Current first officers in the TWA group would be placed "on call" at a new base if they want to fly.

Former TWA pilots have petitioned the Allied Pilots Association to either protect their rights or restore their seniority but, according to the lawsuit, the union has done neither.

The suit asserts that the union has agreed that American can close the St. Louis base. If it does so, it would be left to an arbitrator to decide what protection would be afforded former TWA pilots. The arbitrator would not be permitted to modify the pilot seniority agreement. 

The plaintiffs contend the American pilots' union imposed a "grossly unfair seniority integration" on the former TWA pilots in 2001 and has breached its duty of fair representation by agreeing to end the St. Louis protections.

There has been no final determination on the fate of the St. Louis crew base.

The lawsuit also contends American colluded with the union to unfairly represent the former TWA pilots by agreeing to an agreement that would bar an arbitrator from restoring those pilots' seniority.

American Airlines pilot Tom Hoban, communications chairman for the Allied Pilots Association, said the assertions in the lawsuit are "simply false."

Hoban said the airline also has talked about closing crew bases in Washington and Boston and the union pilots "have no say in it." Disputes over seniority integration would be subject to third-party arbitration.

Ken Leiser is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.