The Crazy Reason United Is Flying A Specific 787 Domestically

Filed Under: Unions, United

It should come as no surprise that the airline industry is full of disagreements between airline management and their respective employee unions. What might come as more of a surprise is the contention between various unions within an airline.

Even after a merger, many airlines don’t integrate their work groups. For example, America West and US Airways merged over a decade ago, but their pilots are still on separate contracts. So now that the merger between American and US Airways has taken place, you have three groups of pilots needing to be integrated.

The same is true at other airlines. Even though the merger between United and Continental took place over five years ago, the two airlines’ flight attendants are still on separate contracts. There are legacy Continental flight attendants who exclusively work legacy Continental planes, and then there are legacy United flight attendants who exclusively work legacy United planes.

For the planes delivered since the merger, they’re allocated to one group or the other. Most of the new planes have been delivered to the Continental side, meaning legacy Continental flight attendants are staffing most of those flights.

United has 28 Boeing 787 aircraft (12 787-8 aircraft and 16 787-9 aircraft), which were delivered to the Continental side. That means if you’re flying a United 787, the flight attendants working the flight are former Continental flight attendants.


It appears as if that’s not how it’s supposed to be, as legacy United’s flight attendant union (the AFA) is claiming that one of the 28 aircraft should be operated by legacy United crews, rather than by legacy Continental crews. They filed a grievance regarding this, which has now been resolved.

Per the AFA, one Boeing 787 will be assigned to legacy United flight attendants, given the error which was made:

United investigated AFA’s grievance and discovered that the B787 aircraft delivered in July 2015, tail number 956, was erroneously assigned to be flown by subsidiary Continental Flight Attendants. Under the terms of the settlement, this aircraft will be reassigned to be flown by subsidiary United Flight Attendants effective at the schedule change during the June flying month. In addition, in recognition of the erroneous assignment of the aircraft, United will make a payment of damages, to be distributed to subsidiary United Flight Attendants. We expect the individual payments to be reflected on their May 16th paychecks.

“The aircraft order book and resultant allocation of aircraft is complex, and in this case, we made a mistake.  We are committed to correcting our error as quickly as possible.” said Doug McKeen, Senior Vice President of Labor Relations.  “We are glad that we were able to work together with AFA to successfully resolve this issue.”

Given that United flight attendants now have one 787 to work with, United will be launching daily Boeing 787-9 service between Newark and Los Angeles between June 9 and August 1, 2016. The flight will operate with the following schedule, per

UA1817 Newark to Los Angeles departing 9:00AM arriving 11:34AM
UA1729 Los Angeles to Newark departing 1:10PM arriving 9:19PM

The reason the plane is flying domestically is because a single aircraft couldn’t fly roundtrip to Asia or Australia in a day, as two planes are needed for such a rotation. In theory they could fly the plane to Europe, though I guess for the time being they want to stick to a manageable route.

Presumably the plane will be flown internationally starting in August, once legacy United flight attendants get a couple more 787s on “their” side of the contract.

On top of that, United will pay the legacy United flight attendants a $3 million settlement to make up for their lost wages resulting from not having staffed this flight since the airline took delivery of the plane.

Bottom line

I understand union issues are a two way street, so I don’t fault the union for wanting what they’re rightly entitled to. At the same time, there’s something about the overall setup which is so destructive.

In theory both parties should want the same thing — for the airline to perform as well as they can, and for United’s employees to do as well as they can. Yet somehow in the process they still have segregated work groups five years after a merger, management is paying $3 million for incorrectly assigning a plane, and the airline is under utilizing a plane because of technicalities.

Fascinating stuff!

(Tip of the hat to Brian Sumers)

  1. Ben–what contract do new staff get hired under for UA flight attendants and now AA pilots?

  2. What makes merging the two flight attendant unions so unattractive for the flight attendants. I always seem to read that the seniority thing is the issue, but if don’t really get it. Is one side way more senior (avg tenure) than other? Does one side have better benefits than the other? I would think being able to work ANY UA flight would be more appealing to the FA’s. But since merging unions in an airline merger never seems to happen, there must be quite a few hurdles they just cant get over.

  3. Shaun – The issue isn’t the lack of desire, but the lack of ability to come up with a joint labor contract that satisfies the desires and corporate cultures of both sCO and sUA FAs and is something the company will agree to.

  4. This is nothing new, for the DEN-NRT flight the plane flies IAH-DEN-NRT-DEN-IAH because there are no sCO 787 pilots based in DEN and they also use IAH FAs the whole route so they fly:
    Day 1- IAH-DEN (RON in DEN)
    Day 2- DEN-NRT+1 (RON in NRT)
    Day 4- NRT-DEN (RON in DEN)
    Day 5- DEN-IAH

    So basically they have a 5 day trip and only work 4 flights and also they fly the IAH-DEN flights with 3 pilots which is crazy. I also believe they fly it DEN-IAH due to there being no sCO maintenance in DEN

  5. OT, but what is that horrible free sample ad under the post, is that new or have I been blind and am just seeing it now?

  6. It’s amazing to me that airline management can’t make a case for what the complexity costs them, and what it takes away from potential earnings/salary/profit-sharing.

    Or is AA’s plan really to have three groups of pilots forever?

  7. Neil –

    There’s still a lawsuit going on from the AW/US merger that needs to be settled before they can proceed with a seniority integration of all 3. A seniority integration that favors one side over another has the potential to cost an individual crew member hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their career. That’s why each group is digging their heels in.

  8. @Jay: “that’s why the US economy is doing so well and companies are running offshore… unions”

    Every time there is an article that points out that unions are involved in some inefficiency, someone makes a knee-jerk “unions bad, look how much they cost us” comment. Yet there are plenty of articles showing how airlines like Qatar and Emirates abuse their non-unionized workforces. Where is your comment saying “thankfully, we have unions here so that doesn’t happen to American workers”?

    BTW, I’m not a union member and agree that the situation Lucky describes is downright silly. But others have commented that the causes are not as simple as the effect. Getting rid of unions is not the answer.

  9. As I understand it…legacy (pre-merger) CO ordered the 787’s so it makes sense that that subsidiary gets to fly them. AND…legacy (pre-merger) United ordered the A350’s so I assume that that subsidiary will get to fly them .

  10. The FA back wages for staffing that plane for less than 10 months amounts to $3 million…wow! The FAs shouldn’t even have had to file a grievance. Management should have been able to figure out there was an error without one.

    It seems that a grievance must have been filed shortly after the original mis-assignment of crews to have the back pay go all the way back to June 2015.

  11. @Cedric pmUA also ordered 787s and this one was supposed to be the first one that UA got

    @Cedric $3M is not a lot of money when you figure planes fly 12+ hours a day with 6-8 crew and those crew making $40 per hour over 10 months adds up quick is some punitive so UA doesn’t do it again.

  12. @snic

    100% agree. The whole point of unions is so that management can’t run roughshod over their workers. Of course that’s going to make operations more difficult to manage, but that’s as it should be.

  13. Lucky, you make the comment they could fly the plane RT to Europe. I would hazard a guess that Europe would be more of a reward for the AFA. Management would likely not want to reward grievances with a sweetheart route. I’m not sure if that’s a nice route to work, just guessing a flight attendant with seniority would prefer an overnight or longer layover in CDG, AMS, LHR that in LAX.

    Just a guess.

  14. There was a time unions were need in America.
    Now union is used to keep rotten employees from being fired and keeping US companies from being globally competitive.
    Hope such companies just go bankrupt and the stupid union members lose their job.

  15. on the safety factor, I’d rather NOT fly on any of there UA staffed flights as those FA’s are still missing the routine on that plane!!!
    That’s what they are on board for, SAFETY!!! service is a long passed history on that airline!
    One more reason to avoid UNITED and I used to be a hugh fan and frequent flyer on them once. Same for CONTINENTAL and former AWA.
    What a shame.

  16. Ben,

    You think this is weird? I flew in on AA the other day, PHL–>LAX (which still uses Gates 60-63 at LAX).
    The Gate Agent there (it’s all the old US Air folks) told me that he IS allowed to greet AA flights over in Terminal 4… but he’s not allowed to touch any of the Jetway controls. “Union Thing”.

  17. The sub CO and sub UA FA come bracts are very different and there is a major power struggle and infighting going on inside the AFA for United. That’s one reason there hasn’t been a joint contract. The other reason is the company was happy to keep the work groups separate and hire FAs to the CO side in the hopes that there would be more FAs on the CO side to influence a contract vote

  18. What I don’t understand is why such a high ‘compensation’, if any.

    Were those FAs not paid a salary at all during that period, were they not working on other flights anyway?

    Do they get paid more for flying on a 787?

    Isn’t it time that some of them took this as a retirement bonus?!

  19. That’s what surprised me most when got to know the US better: It is super heavily unionized. We Europeans usually think that unions are only strong in Europe, but as a matter of fact they are actually very strong in the US.

    Once UA couldn’t find a staffer of the right union to close the cargo hatch at EWR. The hatch remained open for 90 minutes and the flight got delayed only for that reason …

  20. The US is nowhere near as “super heavily unionized” as it used to be. The airline industry is the exception, not the rule.

  21. Yeah, because when a job needs to be done and an entire pool of people are qualified to complete it, we need to let union rules and idiotic nonsense dictate who works the job instead of just giving it to whatever qualified person is on site and available at the time. You know, because that way is the most efficient and cost effective way and we wouldn’t dare go that route. It never ceases to amaze me how union shops are run.

  22. Quick note about United — The airline is offering up to 75% more miles when you buy above a 20K threshold. You can buy up to 150,000 miles this year with the offer. The deal ends tonight at 11:59pm CT. Have fun!

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