United Air Focuses on Image Repair

Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — A tentative contract agreement between United Airlines and its pilots is welcome news to travelers, but both sides say better weather and a reduced flight schedule already have improved service on the world's largest airline.

Now, experts say, United needs to repair its image.

United and its pilots reached the agreement Saturday, ending a four month dispute that forced the airline to cancel or delay thousands of flights this summer.

United's flight troubles began in April after the contract with its 10,000 pilots came up for renewal. Pilots, who maintain the airline has failed to hire enough pilots to carry out a packed schedule, began refusing to fly overtime.

But United's dismal performance began improving even before the contract agreement, mostly because of better weather, said United spokesman Joe Hopkins. He said the number of flights canceled each day has dropped from an average of 192 in August to just 50 on Sunday.

Also on Sunday, United's on-time rate was 72.3 percent, Hopkins said, much higher than the August average of 39.9 percent.

``The improvements started several weeks ago,'' Hopkins said.

United canceled 1,950 flights that were scheduled for October, adding to the 4,000 flights that have been canceled in August and September.

The pilots' union said the key is for United to continue with a reduced flight schedule — and to hire more pilots instead of relying on overtime. The new contract still allows pilots to refuse overtime.

``If we got the best contract in the world, nothing would change,'' pilots' spokesman Herb Hunter said. ``The problem is with understaffing.''

With a contract almost in place, United should now focus on winning back customers lost because of the delays and cancelations, said Sanjay Dhar, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business.

``The industry does need United, but United needs people to try them again to see that things are back to where they were and that they're comfortable with United,'' Dhar said.

Last week, the airline launched a 30-second television commercial in which United's chairman and CEO, James E. Goodwin, tells customers that the airline has failed in its commitment. But Dhar said the ad campaign should also include a promise that the business will run better and include assurances from the pilots' union as well as the company.

Dhar said United also should follow up quickly with a contract agreement with its 15,000 mechanics, whose contract expired in July.

President Clinton on Sunday said he was pleased with the progress of United's contract talks and with the aviation industry's recent discussions with Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater about flight delays.

``I commend union and management for working together to resolve their differences in a way that will benefit the traveling public,'' Clinton said in a statement, adding that he also was encouraged that industry officials had pledged to work ``to address the service-related issues and the long-term outlook for quality customer service.''

Hopkins, the United spokesman, said the airline is in the process of hiring 1,300 new pilots by the end of the year. Only 300-400 pilots are retiring this year, so many of those hires will expand the staff, he said.

Neither side has disclosed details of the tentative contract, except that it is retroactive to April 12. But both Goodwin and Rick Dubinsky, who chairs the union's Master Executive Council, have issued statements saying they are pleased.

The agreement still must be approved by the membership of the pilots union. The pilots could begin voting as early as Oct. 23.

Even if the contract alone won't solve the airline's problems, travelers at O'Hare International Airport were pleased to hear it was in place.

``It means I'll get home,'' said United passenger Stephanie Mann, who feared she would be stuck in Florida.


On the Net:

United Airlines: www.ual.com