The national flight attendants union is opening the door to potential strikes as United Airlines parent

UAL Corp.

(UALAQ)

scrambles to wrestle a round of critical wage concessions from its employees.

On Tuesday, the board of directors of the Association of Flight Attendants authorized union members at seven bankrupt airlines, including United, to vote on whether to go on strike if bankruptcy courts allow the airlines to terminate labor contracts.

The airline is seeking $725 million in labor cuts and the termination of its defined-benefit pension plans, saying they are necessary for it to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at a time of high fuel costs, overcapacity and downward pressure on fares. United hopes to slash expenses and put itself on a better competitive footing vs. low-cost carriers like

Southwest Airlines

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and

JetBlue Airways

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.

In requesting board approval for those votes, AFA President Patricia Friend had specifically mentioned United's efforts to seek almost $140 million in additional annual concessions, on top of $314 million in cuts flight attendants have already granted.

"We will stand up for the profession we have built by taking a stand for flight attendants everywhere, in this country and around the world," Friend said in a news release. "Airline management needs to understand that there will be serious consequences if they persist in their attacks on our contracts." The union represents flight attendants at 26 airlines.

United "fervently hopes" to reach a consensual agreement with all of its employees, said Jean Medina, an airline spokeswoman. Should negotiations fail, however, the airline is prepared to ask the bankruptcy court overseeing its case to schedule hearings on terminating its labor contracts under Section 1113c of the federal bankruptcy code.

Friend said management at airlines had made an "end run" around the collective bargaining process by threatening liquidation and asking courts to impose settlements. She noted that

US Airways

(UAIRQ)

recently asked the judge overseeing its bankruptcy case to terminate contracts with unions that had not already reached deals with management.

In reaction to the potential strikes, the United spokeswoman said such actions "are not helpful to employees, to the success of our airline, or to the success of the industry." What would be helpful, she said, is for United to sit down with its employees and find ways to cut costs so that it can emerge as a successful carrier in the long term.

Meanwhile, leaders of United's pilot union are meeting through Wednesday to develop a response to the airline's proposed cost-savings plan, which the union called "dramatic" when the airline first unveiled it.

A spokesman for the chapter of the Airline Pilots Association representing United's pilots said leaders were "reviewing and analyzing" the company's proposal but declined to elaborate on the meetings. He also declined to comment on the potential for a flight attendants' strike, citing a policy of not commenting on other unions' matters.

Overall, United seeks a total of $2 billion in annual savings. A third of that would come from labor concessions, a third from terminating and replacing the airline's defined-benefit pension plans and a third from nonlabor cost reductions.