United Airlines pilots have ratified a new contract, considered a major… (Richard Derk )
CHICAGO — After years of divisive negotiations between United Airlines and its pilots, union members on Saturday ratified a new labor agreement, shedding a bankruptcy-era contract for pilots and marking an important step toward fully integrating United and Continental airlines, which officially merged in 2010.
The Air Line Pilots Assn., which over the last couple of years has staged pickets about its lack of a contract and had taken a preliminary strike vote, said 67% of its 10,000 members voted over the last several weeks to ratify the deal, with nearly 98% casting votes. Voting closed Saturday morning.
The four-year contract will go into effect immediately. It provides gains in pay, job protections, retirement and benefits compensation and work rules.
"The era of bankruptcy and concessionary contracts is now over," union leaders said in a statement. "For too long, the pilots of United and Continental have had to shoulder more than their share of the burden as our respective airlines struggled through the difficult economic times of the past decade. We now stand ready to embark on a fresh start for the pilots and the airline."
With help from federal mediators, the two sides agreed in principle to a deal in August, then took until mid-November to work out language for a contract and send the proposal to the union membership for a vote.
"The ratification of this agreement is an important step forward for our pilots and the company," said Fred Abbott, United senior vice president of flight operations, in a statement.
The finished contract is a bit of good news in what has otherwise been a rocky merger for Chicago-based United Continental Holdings.
Most notable to passengers were rampant flight delays and cancellations after a conversion to a combined passenger reservation system in March. Those operational woes were severe over the summer, and customers started to flee to other airlines. But the problems have subsided in recent months, with United hitting its goal of an 80% on-time rate.
United is still in joint negotiations with other major unions, including those for flight attendants, passenger service agents, dispatchers and ramp and fleet workers. Pilot contracts are traditionally done first and tend to be the most contentious.