ALPA Attacks ‘Outsourcing’ during United/Continental Merger Talks

 - September 10, 2010, 7:41 AM
Before the “new” United Airlines emerges from the merger of UAL and Continental, employees and management must agree on the extent to which the airline can subcontract flying.

Major airline pilots have long complained about the practice of “outsourcing” flying to lower-cost regional carriers, despite the existence of clauses written into union contracts meant to limit the size and number of regional airplanes those affiliates may fly. In fact, those scope clauses lost much of their bite when a wave of major airline bankruptcies starting in 2002 tipped the balance of power away from the unions and decidedly toward management.

Now, as United and Continental Airlines work to complete their planned merger, pilot leaders from both carriers see a chance to regain some lost ground during talks in Denver over a new, integrated labor contract. Not only have the pilots proposed a stricter scope clause, they have also called for an eventual abolishment of so-called “regional jet outsourcing”–a proposal so radical that few expect management to consider it for a moment.

The pilots, however, apparently don’t find the idea so farfetched, and they’ve suggested a kind of phased approach to, in effect, eventually dismantle the merged airline’s network of regional affiliations. 

According to a spokesperson for ALPA’s Continental unit, the union has proposed placing an initial cap on subcontracting, allowing the capacity purchase agreements (CPAs) with the regional carriers to run their course and, finally, requiring a phased transition of the flying from the regionals into what will become the new United Airlines. If implemented as written, the restrictions would eventually spell the end of the United Express system. “That could be one outcome,” acknowledged the spokesperson.

In a far more likely scenario, management will immediately balk at the suggestion and the pilots will use the proposal as a sort of baseline from which to start negotiations for a new scope clause. Currently, the Continental scope clause restricts regional affiliates to jets that carry no more than 59 passengers but allows larger turboprops, while the United clause draws a line at 70 seats. Both contain numeric limitations based on the amount of flying done by the mainline.