United Ends Attendants’ Booze-in-Bags Ban as Union Balks

United Airlines’ new no-booze policy for flight attendants got a swift smack-down.

A rule banning attendants from possessing alcohol while on duty, even in luggage, was withdrawn within a day after United announced the move, a union spokeswoman, Corey Caldwell, said in a phone interview yesterday. Chicago-based United backed down after the Association of Flight Attendants balked, she said.

“In less than 24 hours, AFA was able to pressure management into reversing the policy,” Caldwell said. While attendants accept existing rules against on-the-job drinking, they objected to the reach of United’s regulation, she said.

The short-lived dispute flared in the middle of United’s effort to create a single collective bargaining contract for attendants at the two carriers that merged in 2010 to create parent United Continental Holdings Inc. Some employees of UAL Corp.’s United and those of Continental Airlines are still operating under separate union contracts.

United “chose to update” its alcohol rules during a “regular review” of company policies, according to a statement from the carrier. “After we received feedback from our flight attendants, we rescinded this policy for further review.”

Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman, declined to comment beyond the statement.

The carrier’s management has had an often-fractious relationship with the union representing pre-merger United attendants since the Continental deal. The slow pace of talks on a unified contract has left the airline with a staffing imbalance, prompting furloughs on the legacy United side even while it adds employees to the former stand-alone Continental.

Layover Purchase

Caldwell said some attendants saw the alcohol regulation as infringing on their rights. For example, the policy would have barred an employee from buying a bottle at a wine shop during a long layover and taking it on board in luggage, Caldwell said.

“No one knows where this came from,” Caldwell said. “There was no incident, no triggering factor. It just came out of left field.”

The union learned of the change on May 21 when United disclosed it in an internal publication called “Inflight Services Weekly.” The regulation said flight attendants weren’t allowed to possess alcohol at any time while on duty without management’s permission.

United made an exception for alcohol bought between flights at a duty-free shop, and required a receipt in such cases, according to the airline’s statement.