New United-Aer Lingus pact a test for deeper ties

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United's latest deal for Irish carrier Aer Lingus to operate co-branded flights from Washington Dulles to Madrid beginning in 2010 is serving as a test to determine if the two carriers will further broaden their ties.

Aer Lingus plans to operate Airbus A330-200s on the route, and United SVP Alliances, International and Regulatory Affairs Mike Whitaker says the carrier is "anxious" to see how the new service performs.

While the carriers could potentially add two more flights to their growing relationship in 2011 "if things go well", Whitaker stresses the performance of the Washington-Madrid operation will determine the next steps. "The reality is we will wait and evaluate the appropriate markets," says the senior executive.

Whitaker explains it is his understanding that Aer Lingus is scheduled to have a Washington-based crew, but adds that is not a required element of the deal.

United has a number of partners in Europe some in the Star Alliance, and others outside the grouping, Whitaker explains. But United's decision to partner with Aer Lingus was based on the carrier's cost structure, what United considers the appropriate aircraft and the Irish carrier's willingness to expand their relationship.

The two airlines in November launched a codeshare covering seven US gateways served by Aer Lingus allowing connections to 200 cities in United's network. United places its code on Aer Lingus operated flights from Ireland to London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

The two-class Airbus widebody Aer Lingus plans to operate between Washington and Madrid is also a different type of aircraft for United, Whitaker explains, adding the market is a good fit for the A330.

United has gotten pushback from its employee groups regarding the new tie-up, with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) accusing carrier management of "outsourcing of jobs to an international company".

Furthermore ALPA says: "Aer Lingus has advised the Irish press that this joint venture will operate an Aer Lingus aircraft with neither United nor Aer Lingus employees, under a separate operating certificate and newly established wages and working conditions."

United's executive Whitaker says the new Aer Lingus codesharing deal is permitted under the current pilot contract.

In an official response to ALPA's claims United says the new agreement with Aer Lingus is an opportunity to leverage EU-US open skies on a route "that would not be economically viable on our own and brings more traffic and revenue to our network".