United Airlines: Pilots’ union is conducting a public campaign of intimidation


United Airlines filed suit in U.S. court against its pilots’ union on Wednesday, asking it to stop pilots from engaging in slowdowns it said had led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights in the last 10 days.

The lawsuit, filed in Chicago, seeks a preliminary injunction against the Air Line Pilots Association and four pilots — Steven Tamkin, Robert Domaleski Jr., Xavier Fernandez and Anthony Freeman — claiming that the union and the pilots had organized an effort to encourage pilots to call in sick. The airline said the union was conducting a “public campaign of intimidation” meant to discourage pilots from filling in for the pilots who used their sick time, “effectively engaging in a slowdown.”

United, the second-largest domestic airline behind American, said the campaign had been under way for a year but had accelerated in recent weeks. United said it had canceled 329 flights from July 19 to 27, disrupting plans for 36,000 travelers. The cancellations cost United “millions of dollars in lost profit, damaging its reputation and customer good will,” the airline said in the lawsuit.

United’s cancellation record through May this year was not that much worse than that of the rest of the industry. It canceled 2.59 percent of its 2008 flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, compared with the industry average of 2.36 percent, while 73 percent of its flights arrived on time, versus the industry average of about 74 percent.

The pilots’ union could not be immediately reached for comment. Of the pilots named, all except Freeman are officers of the union.

United, which lost $2.7 billion during the second quarter, is on a drive to cut spending and jobs in the wake of record prices for jet fuel, which have nearly doubled since summer 2007. The airline, which is grounding 100 of its aging aircraft, said last month that it would eliminate 950 pilot jobs.

Company officials said they tried to negotiate with the pilots’ union, known as ALPA, before filing the suit. “It is absolutely irresponsible for ALPA to promote unlawful behavior, particularly in this environment, when the industry is taking unprecedented actions to offset record fuel costs,” said Peter McDonald, an executive vice president at United.

United said the rate of sick leave among some of its co-pilots is up 103 percent this summer, while pilots in general are picking up much less additional flying time than in past years. In 2006, pilots were five times more likely to fly additional trips compared with this summer, United said.

United’s pilots hold a seat on the company’s board, and had significant power at the airline when it was employee-owned during the 1990s and earlier this decade. But pilots staged a slowdown in the summer of 2000 that tangled the airline’s operations and led to a financial slide. United, which lost two planes in the September 2001 attacks, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002 and emerged in 2006.