Can’t Get No Satisfaction at United Airlines

Carl Finamore

Once again, for the second year running, United Airlines (UAL) placed dead last in customer satisfaction, according to a 2010 poll conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. This is just about where United employees find themselves today, at the very bottom. That’s according to unions representing most of UAL’s 48,000 employees.

Here we have an example of something unusual and unexpected: Passengers and employees alike sharing similar grievances against the same company. As we shall see, customer dissatisfaction with poorer service and crowded aircraft is not so unrelated to employee complaints about stagnant wage levels and staff reductions.

In response to many of these unresolved issues, union pilots (ALPA) and flight attendants (AFA-CWA) made their case public. They organized coordinated airport picketing across the globe on January 7, marking one year without a contract settlement since all labor agreements became amendable. Joining the pickets were International Association of Machinists (IAM) ground workers and Teamster (IBT) mechanics also in separate negotiations with the airline.

Uniformed flight attendants, in particular, turned out in force, in far greater numbers than were anticipated according to their union. There are reasons for the good turnout.

United Airlines flight attendants are working at 1994 wage levels!” exclaimed AFA-CWA SFO chapter president Chris Black to the San Francisco airport picket line of several hundred. Understandably, fair wages are of primary interest to flight attendants. We are so sick and tired of concessions we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the pay, benefits and quality of life we have earned,” Black said.

But wages are really a deep concern shared by all work groups, because enormous concessions were imposed on all employees beginning in late 2002 during UAL’s bankruptcy, including the unwarranted and unconscionable termination of pensions. 

Management promised at the time to begin early negotiations aiming for new contracts by the end of 2010, when unionized employees would have the opportunity, presumably, to recoup some lost ground through the collective bargaining process.

So, management’s delay of current negotiations and their insistence in some cases on even more concessions has become extremely frustrating.

Jobs at risk

Another big issue is the loss of jobs. Thousands of positions have been eliminated in the last decade and job security, therefore, is a major concern for employees.

It is also very important to UAL management. Their strategy is to cut costs further and to boost earnings even beyond the record second quarter 28% revenue jump they experienced in 2010.

Management apparently believes this can most effectively be accomplished by continuing to subcontract a wide variety of work to lower paid workers at smaller airlines, popularly termed commuter, regional or low-cost carriers.

As one example, there are currently 1,400 UAL laid off pilots, because many former United flights are now being flown by regional carrier SkyWest, which generally employs newer, less-experienced pilots. For example, regional captains generally earn less than a third of their counterparts working on major carriers, while it is not uncommon for regional airline co-pilots to earn as little as $25,000 a year or less.

This one example refers to flight crews, but it impacts all UAL employees, including ground workers and mechanics who will no longer be needed to service UAL aircraft formerly serving routes now flown by non-union SkyWest.

Critics claim safety is compromised whenever experienced workers are displaced for no other reason than to maximize profits. This considered opinion is to be taken seriously. It is not a specious argument to save jobs. It is one designed to save lives.

For example, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D‑N.D.), whose Senate subcommittee on aviation recently held a hearing on aviation safety, reported that half of the flights in America now are commuter flights [flown by low-cost regional carriers] and they often end up somewhere late at night after many, many stops. In almost every crash we’ve looked into, fatigue and lack of rest [for the crews] have been a factor.”

In addition, opponents of outsourcing by major airlines cite the 1996 low-cost carrier Value Jet’s catastrophic accident in the Florida Everglades that killed all 110 aboard because an improperly trained subcontracted ground crew placed hazardous materials in the cargo pit of the aircraft; they cite a Department of Transportation Inspector General scathingly critical report of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inadequate enforcement of aircraft repair stations located overseas. Finally, they cite the dismal safety record of smaller regional jets where six of the last nine fatal crashes on U.S. passenger airlines occurred since 2003, resulting in 154 people killed compared to three deaths on major airlines in the same period.

Nonetheless, United seem determined to continue their outsourcing and low-wage strategy even as the world’s number one newly-merged airline seeks to further consolidate operations with Continental Airlines. Perhaps the best prescription for yet another round of big profits. But not at all the best medicine for a successful merger.

United already announced it anticipates over $1 billion in annual savings by combining the assets of both airlines, but most merger analysts agree it is extremely difficult to imagine United and Continental having a smooth integration of their separate operations while significant labor discontent remains.

The situation greatly jeopardizes management expectations of hitting the jackpot and at the same time provides significant bargaining leverage for employee.

The unions fired an opening salvo on January 7. Look for more to be said and done, both publicly and at the negotiating table, until these critical issues are resolved.

Carl Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and former President (retired), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.
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