United Airlines has been forced to cancel thousands of flights throughout the busy summer flying season because many of its union pilots are refusing to work overtime, the biggest U.S. carrier confirmed Thursday.
United has canceled a total of 4,800 flights scheduled from May to September in an effort to cope with the action by members of the Air Line Pilots Assn., according to a company spokesman. United operates 2,500 flights a day.
The cancellations, representing about 2% of scheduled flights, come at the busiest time of the year for the airline. Friday, at the start of the long Fourth of July holiday weekend, United planes were more than 90% full, a near-record load for the airline.
United spokesman Matt Triaca said the airline was calling people who have already made travel plans as soon as possible. "We're going through the list of advance bookings. It's a rolling process," he said.
The pilots' action, which was never officially announced, began in April when the ALPA contract covering 11,000 United pilots came up for renegotiation. Since then, the labor situation has been further complicated by United's proposal to buy US Airways, which, if approved by federal regulators, would require the two airlines to merge their pilot seniority lists. The pilots have come out against the merger but say that could change if their labor problems are resolved.
Little progress has been reported in negotiations, and union leaders are scheduled to meet in Chicago from July 24 to July 28 to consider their next move in both the contract talks and the merger proposal. Triaca said the cancellations initially hit United's West Coast shuttle flights the hardest because of a shortage of the most junior pilots. The shuttle normally employs the pilots with the least seniority who have to fly more hours to earn the same income as a mainline pilot flying the same aircraft.
United has since spread the cancellations throughout the airline's route system to prevent chaos in its West Coast operations.
The union blames the situation on an overall pilot shortage at the airline.
"We warned them six months to a year ago that they were going to have a shortage of pilots, but they told us, 'You fly the planes and we'll manage the airline,' " ALPA spokesman Herb Hunter said.
Hunter said the pilots were refusing to work extra days but were not walking off planes in the middle of a shift because they were about to go on the overtime clock. "They're not working on their days off," he said.
United, in a recent letter to members of its Mileage Plus and Premier frequent-flier clubs, apologized for any inconvenience.