United, pilots in court over slowdown claim

August 27, 2008 4:22:40 PM PDT
United Airlines took its pilots union to federal court Wednesday. The airline claims its pilots staged an illegal work slowdown last month causing the cancellation of hundreds of flights. The relationship between United and its pilots has long been strained, but it is arguably at one of its lowest points ever. United is accusing the Air Line Pilots Association of trying to economically sabotage the company through sickouts, longer than necessary pre-flight checks, and purposely burning off fuel. The fight is now before Federal District Court Judge Joan Lefkow.

Over a 10-day period in July, United canceled over 300 flights, affecting 36,000 passengers and costing the airline millions in lost revenue. The reason, United says, was a sickout largely by junior pilots upset with the airline's decision to furlough nearly 1,000 pilots beginning in October. United wants a court injunction to block what it says is a clear violation of labor law.

"We have done everything that we possibly can through diplomacy to stop these slowdowns and it hasn't worked. This is really a last resort for us to stop this slowdown activity," said Pete McDonald, United chief operating officer.

Pilots acknowledge there was frustration with the pending layoffs, but they say there was no sickout and that the airline is pushing the limit on safety.

"You will see in the case, a lot of things you'll see they're contending -- we're turning down planes. Well, we're turning down broken down planes and we're not going to fly past the point of fatigue. Safety is the number one issue," said Jerry Leber, United pilot/union spokesman.

Wednesday afternoon, over two dozen United pilots came to court to listen to the injunction hearing. They've made no secret of their disdain for United's management team, specifically CEO Glenn Tilton. They've launched a public campaign to oust him contending that Tilton and other top managers have accepted big pay packages while rank-and-file employees took big cuts when the airline was in bankruptcy.

United takes angry exception to the claim that safety margins are being pushed, saying the union is using safety as a verbal sword and that this is all about the pilots' push for an early reopening of their master contract.

"We are standing up and refusing to allow our employees and our customers to be used by ALPA as bargaining chips," said McDonald.

"They don't know how to run an airline. They are trying to blame everyone except themselves. This is just as attempt to blame their employees, their customer service providers, for their lack of leadership," said Leber.

A lawyer for the pilots said in court Wednesday afternoon that United's request for an injunction is an attempt by the company to try 25 years of labor relations.

Pilot sick leave numbers at United Wednesday, for instance, were normal. The union says there is no need for an injunction. United doesn't believe the pilots union and wants a court remedy. The hearing will last at least a couple days.


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