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United Cancels More Newark Flights Amid Pilots’ Sick Leave

United Continental Holdings Inc.’s Continental Airlines unit canceled six more flights today, on top of 24 yesterday, because of pilots who said they were too ill to work.

“An unusually high amount of pilots calling in sick” forced the carrier to scrub five departures at its Newark hub in New Jersey and one in Houston, a spokeswoman, Megan McCarthy, said by phone. A so-called sickout caused yesterday’s cancellations, news website reported.

Continental’s Air Line Pilots Association chapter has said it has a shortfall of at least 200 pilots, and that members are having to fly extra trips to cover the schedule. The chapter chairman told members today the union and its leaders “strongly oppose actions of any pilot or group of pilots designed to disrupt Continental’s operations.”

“This includes any use of sick leave for any purpose other than what it was designed to do,” Captain Jay Pierce wrote in a memo. “In short, disruptive actions must not take place and if they have taken place, they must stop.”

Most of the pilots who cited illness today fly Boeing Co. 737 jets, McCarthy said from Chicago, where United Continental is based. The narrow-body planes are typically staffed by junior pilots. Five of the cancellations were for domestic trips, and one was to Mexico City, she said.

Railway Labor Act

The Railway Labor Act, which governs airline labor relations, forbids strikes, walkouts and other work slowdowns such as sickouts unless the union has been freed to do so by the National Mediation Board.

United Continental was formed when UAL Corp.’s United and Continental Airlines Inc. merged in October, creating the world’s largest carrier. The airlines must operate separately until they receive a joint certificate later this year from the Federal Aviation Administration.

United and Continental together make more than 5,700 flights a day and have about 9,900 pilots among their 86,000 employees.

A July 14 agreement between United Continental and unions for the separate subsidiaries cleared the way for offering 201 pilot vacancies at Continental, which was based in Houston before the merger, to furloughed United pilots. The pilots would start training in September and wouldn’t begin flying until year’s end, Continental’s union chapter said at the time.

United Continental fell 90 cents, or 5 percent, to $17.16 at 4:05 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, the most among 11 carriers in the Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index. The shares have tumbled 28 percent this year.

Sickout History

Pilot sickouts can result in court orders prohibiting employees from taking those actions.

United won an appeals court ruling in March 2009 barring pilots from a work slowdown that led to 329 canceled flights over two months. The United pilots union testified that an increased number of sick calls during that period was “purely a coincidence” and wasn’t a coordinated effort.

In February 1999, American Airlines pilots called in sick over 11 days to protest plans to add pilots from Reno Air Inc. to their seniority list. American was forced to cancel 6,600 flights, costing parent AMR Corp. $250 million and snarling U.S. air traffic. A federal judge later ordered the Allied Pilots Association to pay American $45.5 million in damages.

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