Airline Mergers Could Raise Fares in '07
Thursday, December 14, 2006; 12:47 AM
DALLAS -- Even if the leaders of United and Continental agree to merge their airlines, the hard work of combining two work forces with different unions and conflicting interests will remain.
The history of the airline industry is littered with cases in which peace in the boardroom was followed by rancor among co-workers at 30,000 feet.
It's been nearly six years since American Airlines' parent bought Trans World Airlines, but TWA flight attendants are still so mad about their treatment by new colleagues that they picketed outside the American union hall this fall.
Most merger-related disputes are about job security in the heavily unionized industry.
The TWA flight attendants lost their jobs after 9-11 because the American attendants' union stripped them of seniority. In 1999, American's pilots staged a sickout that canceled more than 6,000 flights to protest the acquisition of Reno Air _ they feared losing assignments to the lower-paid pilots from the smaller carrier.
Employees at UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and Continental Airlines Inc. were buzzing about the merger talk Wednesday.
Workers at both carriers have taken pay cuts since 2001, but the slashing was far worse at United, which entered bankruptcy protection. United terminated its pension plans; Continental did not.
"Now those people could be working side by side. How do you meld happy employees with unhappy ones?" said a veteran Continental flight attendant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she said her job could be threatened.
But optimists said the two carriers have complementary route structures _ United is strong on the West Coast, across the Pacific and in European hubs; Continental is big in other European markets, Latin America and the Northeast. That would suggest few layoffs, other than in redundant layers of management.
Robert Roach Jr., general vice president of the machinists' union, which represents the flight attendants at Houston-based Continental, even suggested that United's flight attendants might regain lost pension benefits.
Flight attendants at Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based United are represented by a different union, the Association of Flight Attendants. Continental's mechanics are represented by the Teamsters, while their counterparts at United are represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.
The Continental mechanics may be wary of letting themselves be represented by AMFA, which led a disastrous 2005 strike at Northwest Airways Corp. But federal law makes it risky for two unions to hold a showdown election. If neither gets 50 percent support from all eligible voters, including laid-off workers who might not bother to vote, both unions would be decertified.