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United Mess
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

On Monday, United Airlines and its mechanics announced a tentative labor settlement. But it's subject to ratification by the union membership who two weeks ago rejected a settlement that would have awarded raises of more than 30 percent. We asked our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa, if United ticket holders should be taking steps to protect themselves

The airline admits that this latest round of labor difficulties has already led to a downturn in bookings by passengers afraid that United might be shut down by a strike. But Monday's announcement of an agreement may very well head that off.

We won't know, of course, until the first week of March -- the ratification vote by members is scheduled for March 5th. But mechanics will stay on the job until then, so if there's a United flight in your immediate future, you should be fine.

And it's my guess that the mechanics will agree to accept this latest deal. They've been waiting for a new contract for 8 years. And when a White House-mandated board 2 weeks ago suggested raises that would make United's mechanics the best paid in the industry, that was considered a breakthrough. But the rank-and-file membership voted down that version because there was a clause mentioning unspecified concessions down the road. United lost more than a billion dollars last year, and it'll soon be asking its employees to take pay cuts in order to help save the airline. Monday's agreement allows the mechanics to vote separately down the road on any such requests by management.

There's another reason I doubt United will be closed down. President Bush has already made it clear there won't be a strike on his watch. The economy and the airline industry would be badly wounded, and the White House doesn't want that. I'd expect the president would find a way to pressure Congress into halting any strike.

So would I book travel in March and beyond on United? Yes, and in fact, I have. But if you're more worried than I am, obviously you can check out alternate airlines.

What if you're already holding a United ticket and you don't want to run the risk of a strike? Well, United is not going to refund a nonrefundable ticket. The airline's president is certain United will remain in the air, and the union's negotiating committee has recommended a "yes" vote on this new contract.

This, then, is what we can be certain of. You'll be fine until at least until March 7th, when the mechanics' votes should be tallied. If, by some chance, the mechanics reject this latest proposed contract, and, if by some chance, Washington doesn't step in to prevent a strike, United will book passengers on alternate flights on other airlines. If you have a paper ticket, you'll find it easier to have it endorsed to another airline than if you have an electronic ticket. So if you have a reservation on United for March, and you want to plan ahead to avoid as much inconvenience as possible, request a paper ticket.

This is the second time in less than 3 years United has seen revenue drop due to labor problems. Two summers ago, a work slowdown by pilots nearly crippled the airline and caused loyal passengers to defect in droves. If United hopes to one day see black ink again, its new CEO, Jack Creighton, must regain the trust of the employees so he can have labor peace. Remember the old slogan United used to use, "Fly the friendly skies"? These days, the airline and its customers will be happy just to know its flying.

From the Savvy Traveler, I'm Rudy Maxa for Marketplace.

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