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United Pilots Lose Bid to Delay Operating Rules in Merger

United Airlines’ pilots union lost its bid to postpone the revised operating procedures being put in place after the 2010 merger that created United Continental Holdings Inc.

U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. in Brooklyn, New York, today denied the pilots’ request to halt the newest phase of the procedures from going into effect tomorrow. Johnson said the pilots didn’t show the training, approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, would put the public at risk, warranting a temporary restraining order.

Current training levels and the timeline to implement new steps for tasks such as taxiing and landing are “inadequate,” leaders of the United’s Air Lines Pilots Association chapter said in a Sept. 26 complaint, which came almost a year after United and Continental Airlines combined. The airline has said the pilots filed suit to gain leverage in contract talks.

“In light of the FAA’s regulatory authority and ongoing oversight of all phases of the United and Continental merger, the court has no choice but to deem the increased risk to safety ALPA alleges as being too ‘remote and speculative’ to lift the union’s TRO application off the ground,” the judge wrote.

Training Procedures

Captain Wendy Morse, chairman of the executive council of the United pilots union, said today in an e-mailed statement that the group is “disappointed” in the judge’s ruling and still has concerns that the training schedule is “unrealistic” and doesn’t meet its safety standards.

“We call on the company to once again delay the Sept. 30 deadline in good faith” and establish more robust training, Morse said.

“As anticipated, the federal court determined ALPA’s lawsuit and request for a temporary restraining order were without merit,” Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for United, said. “We’ll continue to proceed with our training procedures, which are widely used within the industry, were developed closely with Boeing, and are reviewed and approved by the FAA.”

Pilots are scheduled to complete the latest phase of the training program for the new procedures tomorrow, with full implementation happening next year.

The complaint by the pilots union is one of the more visible signs of friction between labor and management since Chicago-based United and Continental Airlines merged last October. The pilots said the company is implementing unrealistic deadlines and only requiring computer training and no classroom instruction or flight simulators.

In Talks

United said the suit is aimed at influencing negotiations for a joint collective-bargaining agreement. The company’s management has been in talks with the United and Continental pilot union leaders since before the merger was completed.

Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek said in July that a new joint contract with the pilots may not happen this year as he originally hoped because the unions and management can’t agree on terms.

“ALPA does not object to the new way of operating -- ALPA objects to the lack of training,” Michael E. Abram, a lawyer for the union, told Johnson at a hearing yesterday for its request to halt implementation of the rules.

The risk to the public was too great to have the training for the current phase be limited to 50 minutes on a computer, said Abram, a partner at Cohen, Weiss & Simon LLP in Manhattan.

Major Changes

Robert Siegel, a lawyer for United and a partner at O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles, said the Continental pilots haven’t objected to the training, which shows there isn’t a safety issue.

Abram countered that United, not Continental, pilots are undergoing the majority of the procedure changes and that the safety issue is the reason for the suit.

“There is nothing in ALPA’s submissions to support a finding that the FAA has somehow been negligent in carrying out its regulatory mandate,” Johnson wrote today.

The case is Air Line Pilots Association v. United Air Lines Inc., 11-cv-04661, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

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