United reaches tentative deal with its pilots

Sunday, August 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO – United Airlines and its pilots reached a tentative agreement Saturday in a contract dispute that forced the world's largest airline to cancel or delay thousands of flights.

The two sides met round-the-clock Friday and Saturday, guided by the National Mediation Board. The key issues remaining in the talks were security and pay.

"This is good news for us all," said Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares, a magazine and online site that tracks airfares.

The agreement comes just days after the second of two industry summit meetings that U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater called last week to address commercial aviation problems.

Mr. Slater went so far as to call United a "poster child" for the industry's troubles, which are leading to record flight delays and consumer complaints.

The United dispute – during which pilots refused to work overtime until the new contract was worked out – led the carrier to cancel almost 100 flights a day during the busy summer travel season, stranding travelers and causing delays at airports across the country.

Mr. Parsons said United will offer airfare bargains this fall in an attempt to mend fences with its customers.

Other airlines are expected to follow suit, although Dallas-area passengers are not likely to benefit much. United only serves Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and carried just 2.1 percent of the airport passenger traffic for the first six months of this year.

The settlement also will affect Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc., which has a large hub at United's home base, Chicago O'Hare International Airport. American has said that it benefited from United's cancellations and delays because many of United's O'Hare passengers switched to American.

A spokesman for United's pilots, Herb Hunter, said the tentative deal included retroactive pay, "a really big deal" for the pilots. The agreement would be retroactive to April 12.

In a statement released by the airline, Capt. Rick Dubinsky, leader of the United pilots' division of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the pilots were pleased with the tentative agreement.

In a written statement, James Goodwin, United's chief executive officer, said he was also happy with the deal.

"Both sides worked hard in complex negotiations to create an industry-leading contract for pilots, while providing a strong base for the company's future growth and success," he said.

The company said that its board's labor committee must still approve the contract.

United's labor problems began this spring, when the contract with its pilots came up for renewal.

Pilots began refusing to fly overtime, which they are entitled to do, and that caused chaos with United's tight schedule. The pilots say the airline has long failed to hire enough pilots to carry out its packed schedule.

United has canceled thousands of flights this summer and had an abysmal on-time record. United apologized in newspaper ads and with a television commercial in which Mr. Goodwin says the airline has failed in its commitment to customers.

United's pilots have been working at 1994 wage levels since their contract became amendable on April 12. On that date, the pilots' wages rose to 1994 levels from the lower pay they had agreed to in 1994 when they accepted company stock in exchange for pay cuts to buttress the carrier's financial health.

The pilots' top union council will meet Sept. 6-8 to review the contract and decide whether to approve it. The contract would then have to be sent to members for final ratification.

On Friday, United imposed a "critical coverage" plan, requiring almost all of its 22,000 North American flight attendants to be on standby for two hours every day for assignments to fly the next day. The overtime plan, in effect the last week of August, is similar to one issued in May, United spokesman Joe Hopkins said.

Mr. Hopkins said the dispute with pilots was not a factor in the overtime order for flight attendants. Instead, he said, the attendants' shortage resulted from weather and air traffic control problems.

"We're a little shorter at the end of the month than we were at the beginning of the month," he said.

Phone messages left with the Association of Flight Attendants union Saturday were not immediately returned.

The order for flight attendants came on the heels of the airline's attempt to order mandatory overtime at some airports for its 15,000 mechanics, who are also negotiating for a new contract.

However, the mechanics' union threatened to stop contract negotiations if the airline didn't back down.

Mr. Hopkins said Saturday that the airline would order mandatory overtime for mechanics only if absolutely necessary. He said no mechanics were forced to work overtime Thursday or Friday.

The airline said it canceled 6,142 flights in May, 4,983 flights in June, 5,323 flights in July and 3,911 flights in August, as of Friday, because of crew shortages, maintenance and poor weather.

The cancellations include a planned reduction of the carrier's 2,400 daily flights, and the airline will continue to eliminate 3 percent of its schedule through October.

United has flown about 90.3 percent of its flight schedule so far this month. That compares with a usual completion rate of about 98 percent at most major U.S. airlines, according to the Air Transport Association.

United's problems occurred as the carrier is seeking to persuade the U.S. Department of Justice to grant approval for its pending agreement to merge with U.S. Airways Inc., the nation's seventh-largest carrier.

The memory of the inconvenience United caused for millions of passengers this summer isn't likely to be forgotten by government regulators, Mr. Parsons of Best Fares said.

Staff writer Katherine Yung, The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.