United and Continental start cross-fleeting

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now, so I guess it’s still better late than never. There are a lot of senior flight attendants that live in Tampa and commute to Washington, doing nothing but Asia and Europe flying. I end up talking to them all the time because I usually end up sitting next to them (and have been flying with them between Tampa and Washington for over five years now). Surprisingly, the flight attendants living in Tampa are usually pretty on top of their stuff when it comes to knowing what’s going on at United.

So last week when I showed up for my usual 9AM flight to Washington, I saw some of the flight attendant “regulars” standing around talking. The first thing I heard from one of Tampa’s more outspoken flight attendants was “Did you hear they’re going to take our Amsterdam and Zurich flights and give them to those kids at Continental? If I have to go back to flying domestic, I’ll die.”

One of the biggest labor challenges the new United will face will be integrating the seniority lists of the two airlines. United’s flight attendants are generally more senior than Continental’s, so don’t be surprised to hear United flight attendant refer to Continental flight attendants as “kids/babies,” or Continental flight attendants to refer to United’s flight attendants as “grandmas” (I’ve heard those terms from both sides over the past few weeks). So the challenge will be how to integrate those seniority lists. United employees wants an “absolute” seniority list, meaning seniority is determined by hire date. Continental employees want a “relative” seniority list, which would mean that a flight attendant that has been at Continental longer than a counterpart at United could end up more senior.

Anyway, back to the topic of this post. Like I said, United and Continental are starting to seriously cross-fleet, meaning that Continental aircraft will operate certain United routes, while United aircraft will operate certain Continental routes. The changes we’ll see are as follows:

Newark to Brussels as of September 29, 2011, United 777 replaces Continental 767-400ER
UA960 EWR1825 – 0745+1BRU
UA961 BRU0945 – 1150EWR

Newark to Zurich as of June 10, 2011, United 767-300ER replaces Continental 767-200ER
UA978 EWR1835 – 0840+1ZRH
UA979 ZRH1010 – 1315EWR

Washington Dulles to Amsterdam as of September 1, 2011 Continental 757 replaces United 777
CO124 IAD1725 – 0705+1AMS
CO125 AMS1215 – 1510IAD

Washington Dulles to Paris as of June 9, 2011 Continental 757 replaces United 777 and as of September 29, 2011, service increases from 1 to 2 daily
CO130 IAD1715 – 0655+1CDG 29SEP11-
CO138 IAD2145 – 1125+1CDG

CO131 CDG1225 – 1530IAD 30SEP11-
CO133 CDG1700 – 2005IAD

Look, in theory I understand the point of cross-fleeting. When you have a varied fleet you can fit aircraft type to meet demand on a specific route better than you otherwise could. But maximizing profit goes far beyond putting a certain type of aircraft on a route. That’s what inventory management and revenue management are there for. In other words, I’m arguing that a difference of a dozen or so seats ultimately isn’t going to make United any more profitable.

But the downsides are endless. United is flying their planes out of Newark, which will mostly be populated by Continental elites, while Continental is flying their planes out of Washington Dulles, which will mostly be populated by United elites. Unfortunately, until further integration occurs, Continental elites can’t use their systemwide upgrades on United, United elites can’t use their systemwide upgrades on Continental, and United elites don’t earn lifetime miles towards million miler status (at least for the time being) when flying Continental. Furthermore, United elites, who are used to Economy Plus have a good chance of not getting Economy Plus on Continental, while Continental elites, who aren’t used to Economy Plus, will start getting it.

But that’s not even my biggest issue. My biggest issue is actually that this hurts employee morale. Once the merger is complete, the employees choose their unions, and seniority lists are integrated, there won’t be any huge issues. However, in the meantime, flight attendants and pilots (on both sides) feel like they’re having “their” routes stolen from them. Once seniority lists are integrated, everything is fair game, but in the meantime, you’re only going to annoy your employees. That’s why this all surprises me. At least in theory, Continental has always been a fairly employee friendly company, so why they would do this is beyond me.

The other big question for me is what’s going to happen to the Aer Lingus codeshare United operates between Washington Dulles and Madrid. United started the service a couple of years ago using Aer Lingus planes and Aer Lingus crews, seemingly with the only intention being to save a bit of money on the crews. It was a very low blow, in my opinion, and I hope to see them discontinue the service and operate it on their own aircraft.

The upside to all this? Continental award availability over the summer out of Washington Dulles is amazing!

Filed Under: Continental, United
  1. Aren’t those UA flight attendants forgetting that with the loss of some UA European flights out of IAD to CO metal, there are CO flights out of EWR switching to UA metal, which means those FAs would just start working some flights out of EWR instead of IAD? I see the downsides to some customers (mostly elites in economy class) out of IAD, but it’s not like the FAs you heard discussing this aren’t going to have opportunities to work UA flights to Europe out of EWR until the integration is complete.

  2. This just reinforces the notion that airlines will do anything to save one penny, literally. Airline management on employee morale (especially flight attendant morale): “who cares.”

    You say: “why they would do this is beyond me.” Again, in the blog post you answer you own question: to save a (minimal) amount of money.

    Airline management doesn’t give a hoot about FA morale.

  3. Are you sure about the IADCDG dates? KVS/Sabre is showing the 777 continuing through the end of the summer season with the addition of a second sector on a CO 757 (UA3844, 2145-1125+1). From what I can see, the schedule is loaded for 2x IAD-CDG until the fall with 1 777 and 1 757, then the 777 goes away after Sep 28.

  4. What annoys me most is CO’s obsession with 757s on Europe routes. As someone who is a predominantly coach flier, the notion of sitting in row 25 on a 757 for 6+ hours is absolutely horrifying.

    I have flown on CO more than I have on UA, and CO’s staff was always far superior in terms of morale and they always seem like they genuinely enjoy their work. I hope that that sticks around after the merger with UA is complete, but I have my doubts.

  5. Here’s the prima facie case for cross fleeting:

    UAL B772 (12/45/194) to COA B752 (16/159) is not anywhere close to “a dozen seats” adjustment. It’s a dozen seats in first alone, plus two and a half dozen in business plus three dozen in coach. Sounds like UAL was sending way too much capacity to those SkyTeam hubs due to equipment constraints.

    OTOH both ZRH and BRU probably have a lot of premium cabin demand from NYC due to finance and government traffic, so it makes sense to upgrade them and grab more of those front-cabin dollars.

    I don’t see the reason for consternation with the crew. Nobody’s planes are going to the desert, they’re just moving 200 miles up/down the coast. It’s not like UAL has widebody qualified FA’s ready to go in EWR; it will probably be your same TPA friends just commuting to EWR instead of IAD.

    For elites it’s definitely a reduction in service quality and consistency: already applied upgrades lost and no SWU usage and mileage upgrades through *A (full fare only) mechanisms. I had a similar issue with domestic cross fleeting (well, mostly just UAL canceling their flights and dumping everyone on existing COA flights) where I lost a confirmed upgrade and due to ticket sync issues I had no shot at EUA or day-of upgrades. I wrote UAL an email about it, recognizing the automation/system issues but suggesting more manual/agent flexibility; the response was “sorry” + $200 ecert rather than addressing the issue.

  6. My ex is a CO FA and she was telling me a story about UA & CO pilots getting into a fist fight in the crew lounge of a Paris hotel. She also said CO is going to start DEN-FLL and DEN-LAS service. I agree crossing crew bases may not be a good idea, unless UAL is trying to pit the employees against each other as some sort of strange negotiation tactic.

  7. Hmm, that took me so long to compose a couple other people posted.

    What’s the aversion to B752 TATL flying? The hard product is the same (minus E+ for a few years), the cabin is just as big as the 747 UD (minus the window boxes), the lav ratio is the same (within a handful of pax per lav), and the block times are nearly the same (+10 min).

  8. >>United employees wants an “absolute” seniority list, meaning seniority is determined by hire date. Continental employees want a “relative” seniority list, which would mean that a flight attendant that has been at Continental longer than a counterpart at United could end up more senior.

    If a CO FA has been at CO longer than a UA FA has been at UA, wouldn’t that imply that the CO FA’s hire date was before that of the UA FA? So your example of relative vs. absolute still seems to come back to hire date. Am I missing something here? (Did you write this as you got off a red-eye? 🙂

  9. If they are going to start cross-fleeting, why not just start allowing SWU/mileage upgrade use on either airline? I mean it’s a change that is going to have to be made at some point, why not just make it now? It’s better than alienating elites…(particularly CO elites in EWR who have a host of other places to take their loyalty if they get pissed at CO).

  10. I also think you may be too optimistic if you are thinking the morale will improve greatly once these issues are settled. The issues may get settled but there will be losers and some of the losers certainly will not be happy.

    The bottom line is that the airline industry is a top place to work.

  11. This may be a dumb question, but will, for example, the CO 757 on IAD-CDG be shown as “operated by Continental” on .bomb, etc? Or will we only know if E+ doesn’t show up, for example, whether it’s aUA or CO bird?

    I’ll choose another carrier before I subject myself to E- in a 757 TATL. Same size as 747 UD? OK, but that’s Business class. I just refuse to do a narrow boday TATL unless no other choice. I’d feel way too cramped only having one aisle, for example. Even if it is just a psychological thing, 757 just doesn’t feel right for an overseas international trip. Plus I didn’t stay loyal and earn status on UA just to not even have a choice of E+ on a TATL flight!

  12. Great post but Lucky really didn’t explain the seniority issue that well. There are two ways to do it:

    1) Lucky explained this correctly. Simply take date of hire and mash the FAs together. Period. This is way it should be done, in my opinion.

    2) Take UAs most senior FA and he/she is #1. Take COs most senior FA and he/she is #2. Take UAs second most senior FA and he/she is #3. Take COs second most senior FA and he/she is #4…and so and so forth. Since CO has more junior FAs (they did a bunch of hiring out of EWR in the past 10 years to accommodate growth), more junior CO FAs may end up in front of more senior UA FAs (which is unfair, in my book).

  13. It seems to me, based on what you have written, that the UA/CO situation with regards to seniority of flight attendants (and flight captains as well, I’m thinking) is not much different than what happened with the US/AW merger. The same sort of problems about seniority arose there and still exist. It has caused a lot of hard feelings between the East crews and the West crews. Perhaps UA and CO can handle their merger a little better than US. It has not been a pretty picture.

  14. How about those who purchased the annual E+ plan? Do they get refunds on IAD-CDG flghts operated by CO?

    Upgrade instruments are another issue as many has mentioned.

    I don’t think CO and UA have identified all the issues that will impact the customers of both airlines. Do you have a customer feedback group that CO/UA consult on how the merger will impact customer flying patterns?

    Clearly, I am not a happy camper as I am an IAD and Florida based flyer. I can see myself flying MIA-EWR-CDG or IAD/DCA-EWR-CDG starting in 2012 but not now…..lifetime miles don’t count in CO flying at the moment.

  15. The two IAD flights that are being converted to CO aircraft are IA-AMS & IAD-CDG which are poor decisions. Why they are downgrading service to Europe on IAD hub flights while doubling daily service is beyond me. I don’t imagine that EWR-BRU is goung to be a big revenue generator anyways. EWR-ZRH might be a good route to increase capacity, but why doesn’t UA take one of their domestic 767s and convert it to a 3 class 767? It can also do the same with some of its 2 class 777 fleet.

  16. @Mark: “What’s the aversion to B752 TATL flying?”

    3×3 seating on the 757 vs. 2x3x2 on the 767. Much lower odds of getting stuck in a middle seat on the 767, plus a couple flying together can get a pair of seats. Although changing, United’s 777 with the 2x5x2 configuration is great for couples as well. Sometimes we fly coach, sometimes J class, so this would be a downgrade to us when we fly coach. We prefer the roomier feel of the widebodies as well. WIth all that said, I realize that cost wise the airlines have to do what they have to do, but instead of being exclusively United flyers we have already switched some flying to other carriers as the writing is on the wall.

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