July 23, 2012 at 4:53 PM ET
A small gesture is getting big raves from flight attendants who now work for the company created by the merger of United and Continental Airlines but who continue to fly separately—in their traditional United or Continental uniforms—while union and contract issues are worked out.
Flight attendants who came from the old Continental Airlines recently ratified a new contract, which means attendants can now negotiate a joint contract to cover the combined group of about 24,000 flight attendants – including about 9,000 U.S. flight attendants who came from Continental.
“We have to two diverse cultures with completely different work rules, wants and needs,” said Sara Keagle, a Continental flight attendant who blogs as the Flying Pinto.
The two teams will eventually be blended and issued new matching uniforms. But as a symbol of friendship and bridge-building, flight attendants from each airline have been swapping their regulation neckwear for the scarves and ties worn by the other team.
The informal program was started by Kathe Hull, a United flight attendant who was reading through messages on a flight attendant Facebook page on June 29th. “It’s sort of been like the first day of school; we’ve all been eyeing each other, wondering if we were going to be friends. I was checking in on the page and I thought that instead of just posting a comment here and there I would make a gesture to my peers at my sister airline,” Hull told NBC News. She asked if a Continental flight attendant would be willing to trade scarves. “I wanted it to foster a friendship beyond Facebook,” said Hull, who has been a flight attendant for United since Valentine’s Day 1991.
Hull kicked off the program by putting two of her United scarves in a small plastic bag with her name, base city and a note to a potential “scarf-sister” from Continental. She left the bag in a swap box she set up in the Newark domicile, one of the briefing rooms where flight attendants check-in before their flights.
“I have no idea who got my scarves,” said Hull. But she does know that the idea has spread like wildfire.
With the help of an enthusiastic “scarf squad,” swap boxes with plastic bags of scarves, ties and some wings have been set up in domiciles all over the United States. And through a new Facebook page set up for what has been now been dubbed “The Sisterhood and Brotherhood of the Traveling Scarves and Ties,” Hull has learned that swap boxes have been set up at the airline’s bases in Guam, Narita, Japan and Frankfurt, Germany.
“It’s like pen pals meet The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” said Hull, referring to the popular young adult books and movies about a group of friends who must be apart but stay in touch by sharing a magical pair of blue jeans.
“It’s an uncertain time. Bases are opening and closing. People are shifting around,” said Hull. “This is a good way to begin feeling like a family.”
The uniforms worn by both United and Continental flight attendants are navy blue, but passengers who look closely should be able to spot the swappers, who have cleared the non-regulation accessories with United management.
“Hull’s idea is about camaraderie and the bonding as one team,” said Sam Risoli, United Airlines senior vice president of inflight services. “It a terrific idea that’s simple, personal and very genuine. A perfect example of being positive and doing the right things.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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