Years After United Merger, Flight Attendants, IBT UAL Work for Two Airlines

Years After United Merger, Flight Attendants, IBT UAL Work for Two Airlines
JUNE 16, 2016

United Airlines flight attendants, represented by the Association of Flight Attendants, outside Newark Liberty International Airport on Thursday. CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times
Despite the name on its airplanes, United Airlines is anything but fully unified.

More than five years after United merged with Continental, the combined carrier’s 24,000 flight attendants are still operating as if the company were running two airlines. That disconnect has made scheduling crews and flight routes more complicated and has contributed to operational challenges, including flight delays.

Now, after three years of negotiations, the airline and its flight attendants seem to be near an agreement that could integrate the work force.

United management and the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing the airline’s cabin workers, are scheduled to meet for four days in Chicago next week in what both parties hope is a final mediation session. A new contract would unify all the flight attendants on issues like health care plans, wages and scheduling.

“We feel optimistic,” said Sara Nelson, the union’s international president and a United flight attendant for 20 years.

Still, the union has sought to keep up the pressure. It has staged demonstrations outside major airports eight times over the last year, including informational pickets on Thursday from Newark to Hong Kong.

United said it was committed to getting the flight attendants a new contract.

While United’s pilots, dispatchers and machinists have all reached new agreements with the company, the flight attendants have operated under separate contracts. That has meant pre-merger United flight attendants working exclusively on legacy United planes, and the former Continental flight attendants on Continental planes.

New hires and new airplanes are also divided between the two.

Since the merger in October 2010, about 6 percent of United flights have been delayed because of complications within the airline’s control, like crew scheduling or maintenance problems, according to the Department of Transportation. But in 2009, that number was 4 percent.

The chief executive, Oscar Munoz, returned to his job in March after a lengthy absence during which he had a heart transplant, and industry analysts are watching for the airline to turn a corner. On-time rates started inching up earlier this year, which is one indication of improvement, said Craig Jenks, president of Airline/Aircraft Projects, an airline consulting firm in New York.

“Investors are keeping their fingers crossed that positive change is happening at United, and that comprises both employee morale and customer issues,” Mr. Jenks said.

But in other areas, the company is still struggling. United has reported declines in passenger revenue for every seat-mile, a key metric in the industry.

The airline blames a strong dollar, which has contributed to weak demand in international markets, and low oil prices, which have reduced revenue from fuel surcharges and curbed traffic in Houston, an energy center that is one of United’s largest hubs.

James Compton, United’s chief revenue officer, said in April that the passenger revenue for every seat-mile could decline another 6.5 to 8.5 percent year over year in the second quarter, which ends in June, after falling for several quarters. That is a gloomier revenue forecast than those of the two larger United States carriers by revenue, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines.

Both employee morale and customer satisfaction have suffered. In a survey by Skytrax, an air travel research group, passengers have given United a grade of 3 out of 10, compared with grades of 5 for Delta and 6 for Southwest. Lufthansa, the German airline, received a 7.

Labor peace is at the top of Mr. Munoz’s agenda. He was named to the post last fall after the previous chief, Jeffery A. Smisek, resigned in the face of a corruption investigation related to the company’s dealings with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In April, United reached an agreement with its 30,000 on-the-ground airport workers, represented by the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers. Those workers will receive a 30 percent pay raise over the next five years.

While the flight attendants are also pushing for a raise, United rejected their initial compensation plan, saying the proposal was “significantly more costly than at American and Delta and would have a negative impact on United’s ability to operate the airline.”

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants negotiated a 6 percent pay increase for American Airlines Group flight attendants earlier this year. Under that contract, American will adjust its pay scale once United reaches a deal with its flight attendants. Ms. Nelson said she hoped the provision would lead to higher wages throughout the industry.

One provision that is not an issue in these negotiations is employee seniority, a point of contention for pilots in recent airline mergers because it factors into how pilots and flight attendants can be scheduled on their preferred routes. In United’s case, the flight attendants agreed early on to base seniority on the original hire date, without regard to whether the employee worked for pre-merger United or Continental.

United also has yet to strike a deal with its 9,000 mechanics, represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It is scheduled to meet with that group later this month.

On his first official day back on the job in March, Mr. Munoz met with the major unions, and the change from the previous leadership was like “night and day,” said Ms. Nelson, the flight attendants’ leader.

She added, “Once he was engaged and pressing for an agreement, there was movement at the table.”

Correction: June 17, 2016
An earlier version of this article misidentified the union that negotiated a 6 percent pay increase for American Airlines flight attendants earlier this year. It was the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, not the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents United flight attendants and former Continental flight attendants.