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United Airlines pilots ratify labor contract and now the merger can really proceed

Dec 16, 2012 11:34 am

Skift Take

The integration of crews and pilots’ seniority lists can really help United Airlines complete the Continental integration, truly creating a single airline.

— Dennis Schaal

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 / United

United CEO and recently crowned chairman Jeff Smisek can really proceed with the Continental integration now / United


After years of divisive negotiations between United Airlines and its pilots, union members on Saturday ratified a new labor agreement, shedding a bankruptcy-era contract for pilots and marking an important step toward fully integrating United and Continental airlines, which officially merged in 2010.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which over the past couple of years has staged pickets in Chicago and elsewhere about its lack of a contract and had taken a preliminary strike vote, said 67 percent of its 10,000 members voted over the past several weeks to ratify the deal, with nearly 98 percent casting votes. Voting closed Saturday morning.

The four-year contract will go into effect immediately and provides gains in pay, job protections, retirement and benefits compensation, and work rules.

“The era of bankruptcy and concessionary contracts is now over,” union leaders said in a statement. “For too long, the pilots of United and Continental have had to shoulder more than their share of the burden as our respective airlines struggled through the difficult economic times of the past decade. We now stand ready to embark on a fresh start for the pilots and the airline.”

With help from federal mediators, the two sides agreed in principle to a deal in August and took until mid-November to work out language for a contract and send the proposal onto the union membership for a vote.

“The ratification of this agreement is an important step forward for our pilots and the company,” Fred Abbott, United senior vice president of flight operations, said in a statement.

The finished contract is a bit of good news in what has otherwise been a rocky merger process for Chicago-based United Continental Holdings. Most notable to passengers were rampant flight delays and cancellations following a conversion to a combined passenger reservation system in March. Those operational woes were severe over the summer, and customers started to flee to other airlines. But the problems have subsided in recent months, with United hitting its goal of an 80 percent on-time rate.

A joint contract with United and former Continental pilots is an important step in allowing the airline to integrate its crews and aircraft, a part of efficiency savings envisioned when the carriers merged. The next step is for former United and Continental pilots to integrate seniority lists, which determine flight duties and, thus, pay rates. The union said that process could take “several months to complete.”

“We look forward to the efficiencies and teamwork we will achieve as our pilots become one group once they complete their seniority integration,” Abbott said.

United has other union contracts to finish. It is still in joint negotiations with other major unions, including flight attendants, passenger service agents, dispatchers and ramp and fleet workers, among others. However, pilot contracts are traditionally done first and tend to be the most contentious.

United’s top competitor in the Chicago market, American Airlines, also recently settled a significant contract with its pilots. The deal, ratified Dec. 7, paves the way for American to emerge from bankruptcy protection and, potentially, merge with US Airways, which has made a formal bid to combine two of the nation’s largest carriers.

gkarp@tribune.com ___

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