United flight attendants approve first post-merger joint contract

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 12, 2016 1:43 PM

By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) - Flight attendants at United Continental Holdings Inc have voted to approve a contract that will hike wages between 18 percent and 31 percent this September after a lengthy and sometimes contentious negotiation, their union said on Friday.

Some 53 percent of those who voted backed the deal, which marks the first labor contract covering all 25,000 flight attendants from both United and Continental, according to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. The airlines merged in 2010.

The new contract is an important step toward integrating United and Continental and reducing flight cancellations.

The agreement was reached by the airline and union in June under the guidance of the U.S. National Mediation Board, following months of protests by workers and years of talks.

In addition to pay raises, the contract provides better healthcare and job protection, the union said.

The ratification represented a victory for the airline's new chief executive officer, Oscar Munoz, who has sought harmony with workers for the No. 3 U.S. airline by passenger traffic.

United shares were down less than 1 percent in afternoon trading.

"The contract provides immediate economic gains, sets a new industry standard and ensures flight attendants can achieve the benefits of a fully integrated airline," Sara Nelson, AFA-CWA's international president, said in a statement.

More than 90 percent of eligible workers voted, the union said.

Furloughs by the airline after the merger once drew workers' ire. That dissipated beginning in 2014, when United offered voluntary buyouts that more than 2,500 employees accepted.

United and Continental crews have yet to integrate, staffing separate flights. That meant when a flight was at risk of being canceled because it was short-staffed, United could not bring in reserve employees from pre-merger Continental if it was on a pre-merger United aircraft. This will ultimately change because of the new contract.

United ranked lowest among U.S. and Canadian rivals in 2016 for customer satisfaction, according to a J.D. Power study.

"What this means is hopefully a much more reliable United, a much more on-time United and hopefully also a more pleasant United for its customers to fly," said Henry Harteveldt, founder of the travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group.

Harteveldt said it will likely take several months for the crews to integrate.

Munoz said in a statement he was helping "turn the page and write a new chapter in our approach to labor and management relations at United," alluding to deals he helped secure for pilots, gate agents and baggage handlers. Mechanics still lack a single contract for the combined airline.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Will Dunham)