- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

United Airlines, a tentative contract with its 10,000 pilots in hand, said yesterday it was starting to pull out of the summerlong dive that brought thousands of canceled and delayed flights, backed-up ticket counters and angry travelers.

"It has been a good couple of days operationally. [Sunday] was a good day, [Monday] is a good day," Andy Plews, a spokesman for United, said yesterday.

"We are cautiously optimistic that our reliability is improving, but this is not something we can judge based on a day or a week it's a long-term effort," he added.

Saturday's tentative contract now has to be approved by the union's executive council and ratified by the membership a process that could take until mid-October.

Meanwhile, UAL Corp., United's parent company, must deal with its 15,000 machinists, who want a better contract and who have been partly blamed for recent flight delays.

Technically, United's pilots can continue refusing to work overtime and may occasionally call in sick until the contract-ratification process ends. But that is not likely, and most will return to work, as is the nature of union workers once a contract is reached, said Terry Trippler, a travel expert with www.1Travel.com, an on-line travel service.

The dispute between the airline and its pilots began in mid-April, when the pilots' contract expired and the pilots began refusing to work overtime. Since then, United has become the worst airline in terms of service, said Mr. Trippler.

"I have heard stories of people sitting in a place for an hour waiting for takeoff because of bad weather or such, and then the people in first-class seeing the pilot come out and say 'Well, I am on overtime now, so I am getting off,' " he said.

Such anecdotes have even reached the ears of members of Congress and regulators, who have been pressuring United to settle its labor problems all summer.

Nearly 70 percent of the airlines' flights were late on some days in July and the first part of August. Another 200 per day were canceled.

United said it canceled 2,752 flights in April; 6,142 in May; 4,983 in June; 5,323 in July; and 3,911 flights this month, as of Thursday. The company blamed the troubles on poor weather, air-traffic-control problems and maintenance.

The cancellations included a planned reduction of United's 2,400 daily flights. The airline said it will continue to eliminate 3 percent of its schedule through October. Already, 3,459 flights in September have been canceled.

During the labor dispute, United has given customers extra frequent-flier miles and waived flight-change fees to assist passengers who were worried about being inconvenienced. The company said it will continue doing this until operations return to normal.

"We want to operate a reliable airline," said Mr. Plews. "And we know winning back customer loyalty is not going to be easy."

United has spent millions of dollars on television and print advertisements lately. In the ads, the airline's president apologizes to travelers, admitting that United has failed in its commitment to customers.

Locally, the carrier has the largest presence at Washington-Dulles International Airport, where it has 194 daily flights, and another 134 via its local feeder airline, Atlantic Coast Airlines. Ronald Reagan National Airport has 34 daily United departures and arrivals, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport has 30.

Officials at local airports could not say how United's dispute with its pilots has affected service locally.

"In essence, nothing has changed yet," said Kathie White, a spokeswoman for the United unit at the Airlines Pilots Association, the pilots' union. "Our labor relations are better, but there is still a pilots shortage."

She said it was up to the pilots whether they would work overtime or not, and even with a tentative agreement, it is still their choice. She added that United has promised the union many times that it would hire more pilots, but has continuously failed to do so.

Neither the union nor the company are releasing details of the new contract.

The dispute began April 12, when the pilots' contract expired. In 1994, they took pay cuts in exchange for company stock, lending support to the carrier's financial health. The key issues in the dispute were pay and job security.

Saturday's agreement came days after the second of two industry meetings that the U.S. Transportation Department called this summer to address commercial aviation problems. Under pressure, United and the union met around the clock Friday and Saturday, guided by the National Mediation Board.

"I think United's management had no good options," said Samuel Buttrick, an analyst with PaineWebber in New York. "It was either agree to a very expensive pilot contract, or continue to suffer from very poor reliability … . Now the operational improvement will be immediate, but it will take somewhat longer for customers to come back."

United is desperately trying to get its operations back on track and repair its image as its proposed merger with US Airways Group Inc. faces federal scrutiny, the analyst added.

"And now there is certainly the possibility of additional bumps in the road with respect to the machinists," he said, referring to the workers whose contract reopened in July.

Mr. Trippler also worried about the machinists.

They "can really slow things down," he said. "They can mess things up equally as bad. They can take their time finding the part, take their time putting it in, and 'Oh, my, I put the wrong thing in,' and that kind of thing … They can get there. It's not a bad airline. It's a good airline that has really bad service right now."

Shares of UAL Corp. have risen 7 percent since Friday. The stock closed yesterday at $51.50 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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