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United, Flight Attendants Feud Over Furloughs

When United announced last year that it would reduce costs by $2 billion, it made vague references to “reducing fuel consumption, increasing productivity, reducing sourcing costs, improving maintenance processes and inventory procedures, and optimizing distribution methods.”

“Increasing productivity” is often code for laying off workers. After all, assuming an operation remains basically the same size, the only way productivity can be enhanced is by doing the same work with fewer workers.

It turns out that United had in mind a significant reduction in the number of flight attendants. According to Reuters, United has advised the Association of Flight Attendants that around 685 flight attendants will be furloughed involuntarily. And those are just the flight attendants who couldn’t be persuaded to leave voluntarily, with buy-outs or other incentives.

The union representing United’s 25,000 flight attendants argues that such involuntary furloughs are prohibited under the terms of their contract.

There’s a possibility that some mutually acceptable resolution will be reached before the furloughs take effect on April 1. But that’s unlikely.

The dispute raises the possibility of just the sort of setback United can ill afford after the many technical and service meltdowns that followed its merger with Continental. Friction between management and front-line employees inevitably translates into service lapses.

If you think the skies are unfriendly now, just wait.

Reader Reality Check

How do you think this management-labor skirmish will affect your travel experience on United?

This article originally appeared on

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