Without a joint contract, former Continental flight attendants fly only on aircraft assigned to Continental, while employees of pre-merger United fly only on aircraft assigned to pre-merger United, creating inefficiencies as well as occasional tensions that, arguably, contribute to United's low passenger satisfaction rating.
The talks, which begin in Washington under the auspices of the National Mediation Board, have a self-imposed July 23 deadline and a demanding schedule, with six weeks of negotiations in Washington and Chicago scheduled for June and July.
A major barrier, both sides agreed, has been lack of agreement between the two flight attendant groups which work under three existing contracts for United, Continental and Continental Micronesia.
"You know how difficult it is to get an agreement between two parties," said Jeff Heisey, secretary-treasurer of the United chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants. "An agreement between four parties becomes exponentially more complex. We've been working to find ways to develop a common union position so we can present a unified front in our discussions with management."
In a letter sent to flight attendants on Friday, Sam Risoli, United senior vice president of inflight services, said, "United and AFA need to reach agreement on the overall economics of the contract.
"But United and AFA can't agree until the AFA reaches agreements internally about what a contract should look like," Risoli wrote. "Resolving the many differences between the current (separate) agreements requires changing traditional practices and considering new approaches. We commend AFA for facing up to these challenges directly and professionally."
Today United has about 12,000 pre-merger United flight attendants, 10,000 pre-merger Continental flight attendants and several hundred pre-merger Continental Micronesia flight attendants. Before the merger, the Continental flight attendants were represented by the International Association of Machinists.