UAL Pilots are Embarassing

By Robert Mark on December 19th, 2006

Some of you have been reading this blog for awhile and I thank you for that. Let me tell you right now that I’m about to contradict myself. It’s probably not the first nor last time for that, but it’s not the end of the world either.

A few weeks ago I lambasted management at United Airlines for missing an opportunity to engage UAL pilots and win at least a kernel of employee support before they awarded huge bonuses to senior managers.

Now in retaliation the pilots have formed a strike committee to warn United management they’re serious about wanting their share of the pie.

And you have to admit, United management almost seemed to be asking for it.

Do the pilots and the rest of the employees at UAL deserve some of those long-awaited profits … sure.

Except, unless I’m mistaken though, that’s not the way the bargaining agreements were written. For now, management and the pilots are playing by different sets of rules. Unionized employees reap the security benefits of a contract that normally adds value when things are rough. But it also seems that one year into a multi-year agreement, the pilots also now want the freedom to demand extra cash in their paychecks as things improve.

Maybe UAL employees need a better negotiating team next time.

But in the meantime, neither United pilots, nor any other unionized group, can or should have it both ways.

Sign the contract, live with the contract. If you can’t agree on something then the strike is an option.

But if you want all the flexibility that everyone believes management enjoys – irritating as it may be at times- then axe the contract and take your chances along with management.

The fact that both sides at United seem to constantly be looking for an opportunity to whack the other is why so many people avoid flying United Airlines like the plague.

Many of us remember people stuck on board a UAL airplane for 12 hours in the summer of 2000, so I doubt either the pilots or management are going to be reaping much sympathy from customers. And last time I checked, UAL still needs customer for something.

Maybe merging with Continental is not be such a bad idea though. Those folks seem to get that customer thing.

What few of the UAL folks – pilots or managment – seem to understand, even after the chaos of 2000 and a massive bankruptcy, is that plenty of airline passengers don’t think they need United any longer.


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7 Responses to “UAL Pilots are Embarassing”

  1. Rudy Kuehler Says:

    United Airlines tries to contain labor costs..
    Is the CEO part of the labor costs ?..
    The CEO had a multi year contract, like the pilots, but the company chose to upgrade his contract significantly, and far ahead of it’s renewal date.
    If the company chooses to voluntarily renew and improve his contract, why not the pilots ?

  2. Rob Mark Says:

    It sounds like you want things to be fair. I think that’s unrealistic in most businesses, despite what we’d like.

    There’s one Tilton and what, 9,000 UAL pilots I think. Changing his contract is easy. Changing things for cockpit crews is not so easy.

    Since you sound like you might be a United pilot, let me ask why the group didn’t simply negotiate for some added contract flexibility based on an improving business environment when they had the chance?

    My point is that while the pilots AND management argue about who needs more right now, the company’s service suffers.

    And customers remember, I think.

  3. Norman Rhodes Says:


    It is one thing to be reasonable with reasonable people but we are seeing company execs being financially motivated to screw the other side down hard. It is as though there are no points being issued for ‘being reasonable’. As a manager/exec, you either win and remove future flexibility from your employees or you lose (your share options and your bonus).

    What hope is there for reasoned compromise in an environment like that?

    All the best,


    (My comment is based around what we are finding in ‘Corporate UK’, not the US. What happens ‘over there’ does end up ‘over here’.)

    [ROE: UK Int carrier, 777 P1.]

  4. rob Says:

    I don’t want to sound as if I’m only poking at the pilots, because I am not. Neither management nor pilots here in the states have much to be proud of except at places like Southwest.

    They don’t all agree there either, but they do seem to be able to find a way to make it all work in the end.

    And reasonably happy employees transalte into happy customers which is what keeps the airline afloat.

    That end result is what we seem to be missing here.

    On the “What hope?” question, I look back at Northern Ireland. Somehow, the rank and file got out of the way and the diplomats took over from both sides to make it work don’t you think?

    There must be a way to do that in the airline industry. But right now, we have too many relatively small special interest groups fighting amongst themselves.

  5. Norman Rhodes Says:


    Both sides in these arguments tend to suffer from the ‘ratchet syndrome’. When things click in the companies favor, you can never get them to click back in the other when the situation changes.
    Every time we (pilots in our company) show flexibility and a willingness to (for example) trial a new work practice, the trial morphs itself into a ‘set in stone’ reality when the savings are being realised with the reward being retained. We then have a millstone around our neck of our ‘own making’. This kind of perfidious behavior makes us very reluctant to lean in our managers direction and stifles creative activity.

    If we all pull in the same direction we know that we can achieve marvelous things, but managers get greedy when they see marvelous things happening.

    We all hope for a true partnership with our companies, what we end up with is something very different.

    We live in hope. :-)

    Happy New Year when it arrives.

  6. Rob Mark Says:

    It has been awhile since I’ve helped negotiate a contract, but has your union never been able to add a provision during the negotiation that makes certain employees share in the pie when later profits arrive?

    It seems as if we only hear about the desire to earn more after the fact, as in the United case.

    One United pilot I spoke to last week said they had never considered anything like this and I guess I simply find this difficult to understand.

  7. Expect a Dark Christmas at United Airlines - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinon Says:

    […] will need to pull that value from somewhere. The most likely suckers will be the riff raff again. I stood right here about a year ago and berated the United pilots for demanding a bigger piece of the pie so soon after the company began showing a […]

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