Continental to hold early talks with pilots

Union gets management to talk about changes in contract due to be in place at least another 18 months; rare recent win for airline union.

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Continental Airlines and its pilots union have agreed to start early talks on changes in the non-economic portion of their contract at the request of the union - a relatively rare union victory in the battered airline industry in recent years.

"Continental Airlines management has shown that it is interested in working with its pilots in a way that other airlines are not," said a statement from Tom Donaldson, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's unit at Continental (Charts, Fortune 500). "Working with employee groups and not against them is one of the best ways, we believe, of contributing to an airline's success."

The statement was released by the airline.

The current contract is due to be in place until at least the end of 2008. Talks on changes generally would not have begun until April 2008.

The announcement from the nation's No. 4 airline and the pilots is unusual in that the request for changes came from the union, not management.

In the nearly six years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, most of the time changes in airline labor contracts were made at the request of management seeking cost cuts.

Continental was among those winning wage, benefit and work rule concessions from its unions, most recently in 2005.

"We look forward to continuing and even strengthening the mutually beneficial, cooperative relationship we already have with our pilots," said a statement from Fred Abbott, Continental's vice president flight operations.

American Airlines owner AMR Corp. (Charts, Fortune 500) was one of the few airlines to stay out of bankruptcy after it won concessions from its unions in 2003. United Airlines owner UAL (Charts, Fortune 500), Delta Air Lines (Charts, Fortune 500), Northwest Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500) and US Airways (Charts, Fortune 500) all went into bankruptcy at some point over the course of the last five years, and won concessions from the unions before or during that process.

Some of those airlines that won concessions have seen objections from union groups, who argue that changes forced upon them went too far, and that they are no longer justified given the industry's recent return to profitability.

The pilots at Northwest Airlines recently passed a vote of no confidence in management there, arguing that changes in scheduling have stretched the flight crews too thin and caused an increased in flight cancellations in the last half of June.

Northwest Airlines management blamed bad weather for the cancellations, but flight tracking services show Northwest's cancelled flights were far above industry averages during the same period. On Friday, Northwest announced it was trimming its schedule to deal with shortage of pilots and the mounting cancellation woes. Top of page