It looks as if the skies may turn friendly once again for United Airlines. With word from federal mediators that a tentative settlement was reached yesterday in the 26-day-old strike by 5,000 United pilots, the nation's largest carrier is gearing up to return to its usual daily roster of 1,550 flights.
Just how fast the return to normalcy would occur, however, is still unclear. United spokesman Joseph Hopkins declined comment until the master executive council of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) approves the agreement. The council is the last hurdle for the settlement, which will not be submitted for rank-and-file approval. At this writing the council meeting had not been held.
Mr. Hopkins did say, however, that by Wednesday the company was already offering as many as 223 flights a day serving 54 cities.
United management had planned to restore about 25 percent of its operations by July 1, Hopkins said. A mix of qualified pilots working in United's management ranks and newly hired pilots had been manning the cockpit controls during the strike.
The strike was launched May 17 over the central issue of a two-tier wage system, similar to that adopted in other industries recently, in which newer employees are paid at a lower level.
In the end United pilots accepted the basic concept.
The two-tier structure puts new pilots on a lower pay scale than those already flying for the airline. Under the compromise worked out, new pilots would catch up to the wage scale of old pilots after 12 years. The structure would be subject to alteration by an arbitrator after five years had passed.
Following that agreement, however, negotiations bogged down over back-to-work issues that included:
Questions of seniority for pilots who honored the strike vs. those who chose to cross the picket lines. United's management had established a job-bidding list that gave pilots crossing picket lines the advantage in picking route assignments over pilots that had gone on strike.
Striking pilots' desire that management not react against United flight attendants who honored pilot picket lines. Pilots said they would not work unless a a back-to-work agreement was reached between United and those flight attendants.
``It's been a big issue,'' says ALPA spokesman Steve Crews. He notes that United officials also met Tuesday with the flight attendant union to negotiate an agreement.
A staff member of the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington who declined to be identified said the issue for attendants was similar to that of the pilots, and he did not consider it ``insurmountable.''
ALPA's demand that 500 newly trained pilots who sided with the strikers and refused to take the strikers' places in the cockpit be considered for jobs after the strike concluded.
United has lost a substantial number of passengers and dollars in the course of the strike. But the strike was not considered long enough to inflict serious economic damage on the financially healthy carrier. Last year United's operating profits reached $564 million.
The tentative settlement was reached after representatives for the National Mediation Board reportedly met in Chicago with airline officials and the pilots' union Tuesday night and into early yesterday.