Tell us if this sounds all too familiar: Employees at several of the largest U.S. airlines are sharply at odds with the men who run their companies over how much money both groups should be making.

Now that most carriers are profitable again after four years of losing billions, the workers say it's time they got back some of the billions in pay and benefits they gave up to help their companies survive after 9/11. The execs disagree, of course, saying that, despite some managers' getting fat bonuses, their financial condition remains too fragile to give everyone a raise.

The odds are low that most of the workers will get what they want anytime soon. Most of the airlines' concessionary labor contracts - signed under the threat of destitute carriers' saying "do this or we'll all be out of jobs" - aren't due to expire for several years. And the process of signing new contracts in the airline and railroad industries is tedious and time-consuming. (You may have seen The Inquirer's May 13 story on Amtrak workers who've been without a contract for seven years.)

But what's going on is what Kevin P. Mitchell - chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, the Radnor group that represents corporate travel managers - calls "a big storm brewing." Across the land, there are large knots of unhappy airline employees who aren't comforted by the fact that they still have jobs, while more than 100,000 of their former colleagues don't.

On Thursday, thousands of union members from the airlines and other transportation trades staged a rally in Washington protesting a long list of complaints about management and Bush administration policies. Among their gripes is the dismantling of defined-benefit pension plans allowed by bankruptcy courts when airlines have been in Chapter 11.

For months, pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and others have put up informational picket lines at Philadelphia International Airport, other airports, and wherever airline executives gather. In the last week, employees have spoken out at shareholders' meetings of US Airways Group Inc. in Philadelphia and AMR Inc., American's parent, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jack Stephan, the pilots' union chairman at US Airways, saw it this way after the gathering: "We wouldn't have a US Airways, and we wouldn't be having an annual meeting today, without the pilots' investment."

At American's meeting, the Transport Workers Union presented an online petition with 17,000 signatures objecting to the company's executive-pay practices in light of concessions the rank and file have made.

Naturally, airline executives say the unions are making unrealistic demands for a return, all at once, of the concessions they made. US Airways' and American's CEOs noted at the meetings how much employees received in profit sharing last year. And independent observers point out how much debt most carriers have. "The big concern is, the airlines' balance sheets are still a disaster this far into an economic recovery," Mitchell said. "If wages go back up now, in the next downturn, some carriers may not make it."

Should airline customers care about these issues? What we know is that, in any business, disgruntled employees eventually mean poor service.

To read Tom Belden's Philly Road Warrior blog, visit http://blogs.phillynews.com/inquirer/roadwarrior.EndText

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com