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United ties pilots' actions to canceled flights

/ Source: The Associated Press

United Airlines on Wednesday asked a federal judge to stop four pilots and their union from abusing sick time and refusing to fly extra hours, saying illegal job actions have caused hundreds of cancellations.

The injunction request accuses the Air Line Pilots Association of encouraging a sick-out, which is not allowed under the Railway Labor Act, the labor law governing airlines. It also said pilots were refusing to pick up extra flying.

“ALPA’s communications are essentially a guide describing how to use sick leave inappropriately,” United’s injunction request said.

United said the first officers on its Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s called in sick the most. First officers on Boeing 737s called in sick more than twice as much over the past seven weeks versus the prior three years, and sick calls by Airbus 320 first officers rose 61 percent, the airline said.

United said it canceled 329 flights between July 19 and July 27, costing it about $8 million in lost revenue and $3.9 million in operating profit.

A court hearing could be held as early as Thursday in Chicago, where United parent UAL Corp. is based, said spokeswoman Jean Medina.

United pilots have been pressing to reopen their contract, which is not scheduled to be negotiable until the end of next year. Pilots took pay cuts when United reorganized under bankruptcy protection and have been hoping to win back some of what they lost.

United has resisted that, but it has negotiated some work rule changes with pilots. It has also increased the number of pilots on reserve. Additional talks broke off late last week, United Chief Operating Officer John Tague said in a message to employees.

“Despite these significant steps, unlawful job actions escalated, intimidation of pilots continued and the impact on our customers and other employees grew to truly unacceptable levels,” he said.

The airline said ALPA has been encouraging a “work-to-rule” campaign where they would follow their contract to the letter — a move that would have the practical effect of slowing the airline’s operations.

Like other airlines, United is shrinking its fleet, and it has said it will furlough 950 pilots.

United accused pilot Anthony Freeman of starting a Web site to organize the sick-out by junior pilots. It said the group was called “the 2172” because they were among the 2,172 pilots furloughed by United in 2001.

The other three pilots named by United — Steven M. Tamkin, Robert J. Domaleski, Jr., and Xavier F. Fernandez — are members of the Industrial Relations Committee of the Master Executive Council at United’s ALPA unit.

United’s ALPA unit issued a statement saying it could not comment on the lawsuit until its attorneys review it. It said United’s press release “contained inaccurate and alarmingly misleading information. The United MEC believes this is not a constructive approach to labor relations.” The union did not specify any inaccuracies in United’s statement.

In 2001 United sued to get an injunction to stop an alleged slowdown by workers in the International Association of Machinists. A judge initially refused to grant an injunction, but a federal appeals court ruled that an injunction was required by the law.

The appeals court in the 2001 case said labor law requires unions “to exert every reasonable effort to prevent or discourage a strike or a concerted work action” like the slowdown by the IAM.

Shares of UAL Corp., United’s parent, fell 61 cents, or 7.2 percent, to close at $7.90. Airline shares were generally down on Wednesday after oil prices rose.