United Airlines and its pilots are taking to the skies again -- temporarily leaving behind several unresolved issues. Despite this, the settlement is seen as important to the industry in two ways. First, it gives impetus to two-tier wage contracts; second, it has given a boost to the pilots' union, which survived a critical test of its strength.
The pilots' 29-day strike ended last Friday, when their union executive council approved a back-to-work agreement. United, the nation's largest carrier, expects to be fully operational within three to four weeks. About 85 percent of its flights were grounded during the walkout.
In the settlement, which managed to skirt key areas of disagreement, each side had something to cheer about.
The settlement ``was basically in line with what the company felt it absolutely had to have,'' says Robert Joedicke, airline analyst for Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. The airline's principal victory is a two-tier wage scale, in which newly hired pilots will be paid substantially less than current pilots.
The pilots, meanwhile, managed a small wage increase -- 3 percent this year and next, and a 3.5 percent hike in 1987. More important, their strike was so effective that any attempt to replace them with strikebreakers would have been very costly, says Kit Darby, vice-president of marketing with Future Aviation Professional of America, a career-information service based in Atlanta.
``Even if they got a draw out of this, it's a victory,'' says George E. Hopkins, a history professor at Western Illinois University. Throughout its history the union, the Air Line Pilots Association, has never won a strike against a firmly entrenched employer without government intervention.
Beyond these basics, however, much of the dispute remains unresolved.
The lower tier of pay scales, for example, has only been worked out for the first five years. Pay for new hires after the fifth year -- including the crucial issue of when the lower tier catches up with pay for current pilots -- is subject to negotiation and, possibly, binding arbitration.
This agreement on economic issues had been reached earlier in the strike. What kept the pilots out was disagreement over back-to-work issues. Here again, crucial points remain unsolved.
Two issues are particularly thorny: the fate of nearly 570 pilot trainees who respected the strike, and the adjustment of seniority between pilots who crossed and those who didn't cross the picket line.
Company chief Richard J. Ferris had vowed not to hire those trainees and to allow those pilots who did cross pickets to retain the more favorable flight schedules they bid for during the strike. The union, meanwhile, was indebted to the trainees, because their decision not to fly during the strike put a severe crimp in the company's hopes to keep a healthy portion of its flights in service.
In addition, union officials say they cannot accept the seniority adjustment the company wants, since it would punish pilots who respected the strike and, in effect, break the union.
To get over that hurdle, both sides agreed to submit those issues to a US district judge here, who already is hearing a case brought by the union, which charges the company with bad-faith bargaining.
Another sticking point was avoided, over the back-to-work agreement with its 10,000 flight attendants, most of whom respected the picket lines. The United pilots had pledged not to go back to work until the Flight Attendants Association had hammered out a back-to-work agreement. But late Friday, the attendants agreed to return to work without an agreement.
Because of United's size, several observers expect its move to two-tier pay will help set the pattern for pilot contracts at other airlines.
``The trend was reaffirmed and reestablished,'' says Lee Howard, executive vice-president of Airline Economics Inc., a consulting firm in Washington. Several airlines, including United's chief rival, American Airlines, already had gone to two-tier pilot pay.
``Part of the strike was on principle,'' says Mark Daugherty, analyst for Dean Witter Reynolds. ``It gives more resolve and momentum to airline managements.''