United trying to balance flight attendant staffing

AP News
Posted: May 12, 2011 5:59 PM
United trying to balance flight attendant staffing

The company that runs United and Continental airlines is looking to put United flight attendants on Continental flights to avoid potential furloughs.

United Continental Holdings Inc. expects to have too many United flight attendants, and not enough at Continental. The two groups have different unions, and their contracts don't allow them to work on each other's flights. The company sent a letter to them on Thursday saying it's hoping to change that.

United and Continental will eventually be combined into one airline, but until then they operate separately.

United has 1,795 flight attendants due to return from voluntary furloughs early next year. The company doesn't plan to add flying hours, meaning it will have about that many extra positions.

Meanwhile, it will be 900 flight attendants short at Continental, which expects to take delivery of Boeing's new 787 as well as new 737s next year, the company said in a letter to flight attendants on Thursday. Continental Micronesia, a unit that flies in the South Pacific from Guam, will have too many flight attendants as well, the company said.

The airline said it needs time for potential transfers of flight attendants and training before the 787 arrives, according to the letter from Sam Risoli, vice president of inflight service.

An election to choose between the two unions is scheduled to begin May 17 and run through June 29. Once that's done they will still have to work out seniority lists and negotiate a joint contract.

The letter is "absolutely not" related to the upcoming election, said United Continental spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.

"When you look at the amount of work that has to be done in order to have staffing in place for the new flying next year, this has to be done now," she said.

Tom Higginbotham, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers unit that represents roughly 9,000 Continental flight attendants, said he expects to talk with the company about its request. He said he does not think the letter is related to the upcoming election.

United's roughly 15,000 flight attendants are represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. The union's international vice president, Sara Nelson, said it would talk to members before deciding whether to discuss the idea of cross-staffing flights with the company.

She said it's likely that involuntary furloughs could be avoided anyway and there is plenty of time to work out staffing issues before next year.

"The fact that they produced this letter just days before the representation election is about to start in an attempt to instill fear among the flight attendants is really pretty despicable," she said.

Shares of Chicago-based United Continental fell 39 cents to close at $25.49.