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United touts efficiency in move to shrink some widebody crews

United Airlines will cut a flight attendant position from some of its international aircraft in a drive to improve efficiency and keep costs in check.

The Chicago-based carrier will reduce the number of cabin crew by one on long-haul flights operated with Boeing 757-200, Boeing 767-400ER, Boeing 777-200, and Boeing 787-8 and -9 aircraft from 1 February 2019, says United's senior vice-president of inflight services John Slater in a letter to staff. At the same time, it will add one crew member to 777-300ER flights when "loads permit".

The changes, he says, will allow United to "operate more efficiently and align with our peers".

The new staffing numbers on long-haul 757, 767, 777 and 787 flights will match those on American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, says Slater.

United staffs its long-haul 757s with six flight attendants, 777-200s with either 10 or 11 attendants, and 787s with 11 crew currently, says the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) that represents cabin crew at United.

United has committed to reducing or keeping unit costs (CASM) excluding fuel flat through 2020, as part of a larger growth plan to recapture what executives call its "natural share" of the US domestic market. It will increase capacity by 4.5-5% this year and by a further 4-6% annually in 2019 and 2020 under the plan.

The AFA calls the staffing reductions "misguided" in a message to members on 5 November.

"These staffing levels do not give us the people resources we need to develop the relationships with passengers that will encourage them to choose to fly United Airlines," said Ken Diaz, president of the United master executive council at AFA, in the message.

Diaz claims the staffing reduction is an effort to meet CASM growth targets and keep Wall Street happy, rather than improve operations and service for customers.

Scott Kirby, president of United, told analysts in October that he was "confident" the carrier would achieve its flat-to-better CASM excluding fuel target in 2019 with "more to share" on that this coming January.

The carrier saw CASM excluding fuel, special items, profit sharing and third-party expenses fall 0.4% in the third quarter. Executives expect the metric to be "better than flat" for all of 2018.

United has had a rocky relationship with its flight attendants since its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010. It took six years to reach a joint agreement to combine the separate groups under one contract, and another two years to integrate them, which occurred on 1 October.

Updated with United staffing numbers for 757s, 777s and 787s.

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