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United Airlines, Pilots Agree on Schedules for Regional Flights Next on the Agenda: Contract Negotiations with Largest Union, Job Security Agreement before Planned Merger with US Airways

By Frank Swoboda
THE WASHINGTON POST -- After a summer of travel misery that saw delays and cancellations of thousands of flights, United Airlines might soon be returning to friendlier skies as it heads into the last week of the season with forecasts for better weather and a tentative contract agreement with its pilots union.

The agreement reached over the weekend, which still must be approved by both the union membership and the company’s labor council, is the latest in a series of moves that United hopes will restore some normalcy to its flight operations.

Although United, the world’s largest airline, was not the only carrier to experience delays and cancellations this summer, it became the focus of passenger anger after its pilots refused to work overtime, forcing the airline to strip even more flights from its schedule.

Even as the pilots reached an agreement with the company, United Chairman James Goodwin was appearing on television commercials to apologize for thousands of flight cancellations since last April.

The union leadership is scheduled to vote on the agreement at a special meeting Sept. 6-8. Once approved by the leadership, the contract must be ratified by United’s 10,000 pilots.

Details of the agreement were not made available. One issue in the contract is the number of regional jets the pilots would allow to be flown by Atlantic Coast Airlines, one of the largest United Express carriers. Sources familiar with the deal indicate Atlantic Coast is satisfied with the agreement.

Company approval of the contract should be simple since Rick Dubinsky, the head of the pilots union, is also a member of United’s board of directors. United is the world’s largest employee-owned corporation, with workers owning 55 percent of the company stock.

The company must now focus attention on contract negotiations with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the largest union at the airline, representing 45,000 mechanics, ramp workers and reservation agents. The pace of the talks is expected to pick up now that agreement has been reached with the pilots, company and union officials said.

“We’re in the batter’s box,” said Rick Sloan, a spokesman for the machinists union. He said that while the union hoped it could wrap up negotiations quickly, it still had some “real issues” on the table.

To protest the slow pace of the contract talks, the pilots and machinists have been staging job actions to disrupt United’s flight operations. Although neither union officially sanctioned the actions, many pilots refused to work on their days off and some called in sick, while mechanics were extremely meticulous in their aircraft maintenance checks. The machinists’ action resulted in many planes being taken out of service, leading to more flight delays and cancellations.

The number of maintenance delays is apt to drop after the machinists union on Thursday was able to get the company to rescind an emergency declaration that would have allowed it to force mechanics to work overtime.

It was not clear Sunday whether the pilots would resume working overtime immediately or wait until their new contract has been ratified sometime next month.

“I don’t have any take on it at all,” said pilots union spokesman Herb Hunter.

One major issue still unresolved for the pilots union is related to the proposed merger of United and US Airways. The new contract agreement does not cover job security proposals for merging the seniority lists of United’s pilots with US Airways. US Airways pilots, in general, have more seniority, meaning United pilots could be bumped to smaller aircraft (and therefor less pay) once the merger is completed.

Officials of the Air Line Pilots Association at United said a special merger committee is expected to recommend a “pay protection plan” at the Sept. 6 meeting.

Neither the pilots nor the machinist unions have given their blessing to the merger. While neither can officially scuttle the deal, both unions have made it clear they would use their political muscle to help convince an already skeptical federal government to block it.