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.
It is easy to see why it has taken a long time for the flight attendant groups to resolve their contract differences, which are vast.
In general, the Continental contract is focused on providing higher hourly wages and income opportunities for flight attendants. United negotiators, however, have historically "bargained for industry leading benefits that don't cost employees an arm and a leg and, in the bargaining process have accepted smaller pay increases," said Heisey, a 20-year United flight attendant who is based in London.
For example, the United contract allows a flight attendant to schedule one flight a month, trade the flight away to another flight attendant, not fly, and still retain full benefits.
Also, the reserve systems work differently. United has a rotating reserve system, so that a flight attendant may fly a scheduled line one month and be on reserve the next. At Continental, reserve duty is continuous with no rotation.
Additionally, the pension plans differ markedly. Continental flight attendants have a defined benefit pension plan negotiated by the IAM. United flight attendants have a defined contribution plan that provides for a company contribution even if the employee elects not to contribute.
Meanwhile, post-merger changes have impacted flight attendant quality of life. Last year, 1,800 flight attendants from both pre-merger subsidiaries accepted buyouts, ending the threat of involuntary layoffs. Still, fleet changes, intended to better match aircraft with passenger demand, have impacted flight attendants who have had to shift schedules or bases.
For instance, Heisey said, if pre-merger United aircraft used for international flying are placed in Newark, traditionally a Continental base, "then international flying moves from Continental to United, and that disenfranchises Continental flight attendants." In another example, when a Boeing 787 was introduced on the new Los Angeles-Melbourne route, United discontinued its Sydney-Melbourne operation. The result was a loss of flight hours historically assigned to United flight attendants.
In May, the J.D. Power annual North American airline satisfaction study placed United last among six traditional network carriers. Previously, for four consecutive years, United placed second from last. "Employee morale is very much down as a result of contractual realities," Heisey said.
Now, he said, the flight attendant groups are making progress in deciding what their contract proposal ought to include. "There has been a lot of discussion," he said, adding that United management has not always seemed to be in a hurry to get a contract.
"There have been various times where they have held off, waiting to see what they will achieve with other work groups," he said. "But as of late, there has been a renewed interest in reaching an agreement."