CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- The new chief of the United ( UAUA) pilots union, taking a decidedly different tact than her predecessor, said Thursday she seeks "engagement" with the carrier. "Our goals have not changed (but) the approach may have changed," said Wendy Morse, who took Jan. 1 as chairman of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, on a conference call with reporters. Reminded that predecessor Steve Wallach had been confrontational at every turn, Morse responded: "Our approach will be, certainly, different in many ways ...We feel that in order to gain improvements we must engage the company, so we stand ready to do that. If we get to the point where we have to be confrontational, we're certainly capable of doing that, and we will, but that is not our first choice. "Engagement is not appeasement," she added. "We think by engaging them we can effectively have a working relationship that meets both of our needs." The conference call itself was symbolic of the changed approach: Wallach typically avoided interaction with reporters. Additionally, Morse acknowledged that glenntilton.com, a union Website critical of United CEO Glenn Tilton, has been pulled, and a campaign in which pilots did not wear hats as a symbol of solidarity has been discontinued. United shareholders could benefit if the carrier and its pilots choose to work together to make the carrier stronger. Pilots want United to be well-managed, Morse said, and "our intent is to engage the company and help them to run the company well so that we can be properly compensated."
In recent years, in contrast to United pilots, pilots at Delta ( DAL) have tended to support airline initiatives such as a merger and code-share deals, making the carrier stronger while also enabling pilots to secure a better contract. Morse, the first woman to lead United pilots, is a 25-year pilot and a Boeing 777 captain, had been chairman of the union's negotiating committee. She said her first meeting with Tilton since her election was being scheduled as she spoke. Asked what she would say to Tilton, she responded: "I plan to discuss the issues that confront us. Aer Lingus is one of them. I (also) plan to discuss the idea of making improvements as we work to a better contract -- that is going to require him to do his part." United pilots have been troubled by United's plan, announced a year ago, to join Aer Lingus in operating flights between its hub at Washington's Dulles International Airport and Madrid. Aer Lingus would provide aircraft and crews. The plan, enabled by an Open Skies agreement that permits European carriers to serve any European country, represents a departure from industry practice because it allows mainline flights to an airline's hub to be marketed by the hub carrier yet operated by another carrier. All of United's union contracts, signed during the carrier's bankruptcy, became amendable Jan. 1. Federal mediators are overseeing talks with the pilots as well as the International Association of Machinists and the flight attendants.
Morse made it clear that protecting flying done by United pilots is a key issue. "We as Americans are starting to learn the lesson that shipping our jobs overseas is not the way to go." She said she is also concerned by the airline's aggressive downsizing. Higher wages are important also, she said, but given that United pilots currently work under a contract signed during bankruptcy, raises will undoubtedly be offered in the new contract. She added that top executives "are making as much or more money than they were making before the bankruptcy." In a prepared statement following the conference call, United said: "Notwithstanding the challenges that exist in our industry today, we have consistently said we would like to reach mutually beneficial agreements with our unions that provide for competitive wages, benefits and work rules, enabling our employees and our company to succeed. " Morse noted that United has had seven CEOs in the past 25 years and that "only one left the company better than he found it." That one, she acknowledged, was Stephen Wolf, CEO from 1987 to 1994. Wolf expanded United's international reach from 11 foreign destinations to 33, including its first European destinations. Ironically, his departure was demanded by United pilots. "When I left, United was the best-positioned airline in the world by a wide margin," Wolf said in a 1997 interview. "Under different conditions, I would very much have liked to stay and run the company."
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .