United Warns Pilots on Sick Days as Claims Seen to Rise

United Airlines pilots, who are pressing the company for a new contract, were warned by their union against misusing sick leave after the carrier noted an “abnormally high” rate of such reports.

Absences exceeded usual levels during the weekend, Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based airline, said today. She wasn’t able to say immediately whether parent United Continental Holdings Inc. was able to cover the vacancies with reserve pilots or had to cancel flights.

The Air Line Pilots Association has asked U.S. mediators to declare an impasse in talks for a joint contract, which is still in the works after the company was created in the 2010 merger of United and Continental airlines. United won a federal court order in 2008 barring its pilots union from supporting a work slowdown that forced cancellation of almost 330 flights.

“Improper use of sick leave or decisions that impact operations in order to pressure the company threaten everything we have been trying to accomplish in recent months,” Jay Heppner, chairman of the ALPA group for pilots at the pre-merger United, said on the union’s website. “Any such activity must stop.”

While an impasse declaration would move the union closer to a strike, pilots would need additional clearance from federal mediators to stage a walkout. Talks are under way this week between the union and the world’s largest airline.

United Continental rose 0.6 percent to $23.97 at the close in New York. The shares have climbed 27 percent this year.

Labor Rules

Airline unions are barred from striking or conducting work slowdowns without following specific steps outlined in the Railway Labor Act. In the past, US Airways Group Inc. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines have won court orders blocking such actions by pilots.

United cited the increase in sick-day claims in a June 24 letter to its 12,000 pilots. McCarthy said today in an e-mail that the airline was “reviewing the situation and taking steps to protect our customers and operation.”

United’s union sent pilots a statement yesterday outlining actions its members should take when calling in sick.

American trimmed its July flight schedule by about 1 percent as pilots at the bankrupt carrier took sick days at a “higher-than-normal” rate. That followed a 1.5 percent pullback in June flying, spurred by the retirements of more pilots than had been expected.

(Updates with closing share price in sixth paragraph.)
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