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Continental pilots ready to arbitrate new 70-seat operations

Continental pilots and management plan to begin the arbitration process in the second week of December to resolve pilot claims that deploying United Express 70-seat jets from Continental's hubs violates scope clauses in the Continental collective bargaining agreement.

Scope clauses are mainstays of US carrier mainline pilot contract that limit the number of 70-seat jets flown by regional carriers under mainline banners. Continental has one of the most restrictive, prohibiting the operation of any 70-seat aircraft. During its restructuring earlier this decade United gained substantial relief on scope, and now flies a large number of 70-seat jets.

United and Continental closed the financial transaction covering their merger on 1 October, and now operate as United-Continental Holdings.

Continental pilots were riled after United-Continental management, headed by Continental chief executive Jeff Smisek, unveiled plans during a 21 October earnings call to deploy United Express two-class 70-seat regional jets from Continental's Cleveland, Houston and Newark hubs, replacing 50-seat jets currently operated on the routes.

The head of Continental's Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Captain Jay Pierce says the first meeting with an arbitrator handling the union's grievance is scheduled for the second week in December. Pierce explains pilots have asked management to hold off on deploying the aircraft until the dispute is settled. The flights with the larger aircraft are scheduled to begin the first week in January, says Pierce.

United-Continental Holdings in a statement says it "disagrees with ALPA's interpretation, and they have agreed with our suggestion that we quickly resolve this through expedited arbitration".

Pierce explains it is troubling that management appears to be seeking a loophole around scope, and finds the disregard of Continental's collective bargaining agreement "disheartening".

He also contends that some markets where the two-class 70-seat aircraft are being deployed are routes that were once served with mainline aircraft, downgraded to 50-seat jets and are now being upgraded to larger regional aircraft. Rather than bring back narrowbodies in those markets, Pierce says the flying is being conducted by United Express carrier SkyWest, which is not unionised. Some of the markets listed by Pierce that once had narrowbody flying include Houston to Albuquerque, Atlanta and Colorado Springs.

As Continental pilots and management work to resolve the scope dispute, Pierce says Continental pilots recognize United has certain business contracts and capacity purchase agreements giving United abilities "to outsource differently". Pierce believes a logical solution can be developed to resolving those differences as the two pilot groups work to develop a joint collective bargaining agreement, and stresses Continental's pilots understand "it's not one way or the highway".

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