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Continental and United pilots are just a few steps away from erasing the line that separates them

Aug 04, 2012 12:41 am

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US Airways and American take heed: after two years of negotiations, the 12,000 pilots are the first labor group of the merged United line to agree in principle to a new contract.

— Samantha Shankman

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After red-eye negotiations, United Airlines and its pilots arrived at an agreement for a single union contract that would bring them together under the carrier created when United and Continental Airlines merged two years ago.

The deal reached early Thursday and announced Friday morning, which the union described as an agreement in principle, still must be drafted into a tentative agreement and is subject to approval by leaders of both union chapters and ratification by about 12,000 pilots.

The union said details won’t be released until the tentative agreement is complete.

Separate units of the Air Line Pilots Association represent pilots from the pre-merger United and Continental, and flight crews have flown separately even as the two former competitors morphed into a single carrier called United. It is expected to be several months before United and Continental pilots begin flying together.

The two pilots’ groups still must negotiate to integrate their seniority lists, which determine who gets the most desirable flight schedules.

Capt. Jay Pierce, chairman of the ALPA chapter representing Continental pilots, said pilots have agreed to go to binding arbitration if they can’t resolve seniority issues themselves.

“In the end there will be a seniority list where the No. 1 guy will be happy and everyone below him will be different levels of not as happy,” Pierce said.

The pilots are the first union employees to reach joint agreements with the merged airline.

“This agreement follows intense negotiations with our pilot group and is an important step forward for our company,” Fred Abbott, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, said in the release.

The pilots’ groups have been negotiating on a joint contract with parent company United Continental Holdings for more than two years. The announcement comes weeks after the pilots had voted overwhelmingly to allow a strike against the company out of frustration over the pace of negotiations.

The union said it had reached agreement with United on “on most major economic issues” and is confident it will work out the final details in the coming days.

“We are pleased to have finally reached an agreement that will allow our pilots and their families to see gains in compensation, work rules, job protections, and retirement and benefits,” said Pierce. “Once there is pilot approval of this contract, the operations of the two airlines can finally begin to be integrated for the ultimate benefit of our passengers, pilots and United employees, and shareholders. We can begin to deliver on the promise of the world’s largest and best airline.”

Pierce said negotiators began a “final push” around noon on Tuesday at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, working all day and into the night Wednesday and “shook hands early morning Thursday.” They initialed preliminary documents early Thursday afternoon.

While the details of the agreement are not yet public, Pierce described the terms as “competitive” in all areas, including compensation and retirement.

“I am pleased with the result,” he said. “I think it will provide our pilots the compensation, quality of life, retirement and job protections that we have always said were key to success.”

Independent airline consultant Darryl Jenkins also applauded the deal.

“This is great news for the pilots and the company as the integration can finally proceed and at last we get to see what Smisek will do with the new company,” he said in an e-mail, referring to United CEO Jeffrey Smisek.

(c)2012 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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