United expedites communications around labor agreements

CHICAGO: United Airlines moved quickly last week to tell its best customers that it had secured two key labor agreements.

CHICAGO: United Airlines moved quickly last week to tell its best customers that it had secured two key labor agreements.

United frequent fliers received an e-mail May 31 with the news that the airline?s machinists and mechanics? unions had agreed to terms that would significantly cut the airline?s labor costs.

The e-mail, in discussing the new wage agreements, told customers, ?Together these actions set the stage for the completion of our restructuring and ability to offer you the very best service for years to come.?

United has been going through a court-overseen bankruptcy restructuring that already has seen it walk away from union pension obligations in an attempt to slash expenses.

If it had not reached wage agreements with the unions, the court could have imposed requirements that might have caused unions to strike.

Future customer communications will discuss United routes and other service developments that interest customers rather than addressing the airline?s bankruptcy, said Jean Medina, director of media relations.

?We?ve tried very hard to not make our restructuring our customers? business. We also have focused very consciously on things important to customers,? she said. ?The restructuring should be transparent to our customers.?

Robert Gordon, an aviation expert and professor at Northwestern University, said United handled the announcement of its union settlements well. ?They don?t want to start a special fare sale for a strike that didn?t happen,? he said.

Medina said customer bookings had not dropped in recent weeks while the possibility of unions walking off the job was in the news. ?We have been very clear in getting out the message that customers can book with confidence,? she said.

The next challenge for United will be to show customers that it can function effectively with the union concessions it?s received, said Nicholas Kalm, founder of Reputation Partners, a Chicago reputation management specialist.

?Their image problem is because they?ve had very contentious labor problems for some time,? Kalm said. Rather than not discuss the bankruptcy, Kalm advised United to tell customers that it is restructuring successfully. ?They should confront it very directly,? he said.

United has been working with Robinson, Lerer & Montgomery, a New York-based agency, on restructuring communications. It handles customer communications internally, Medina said.

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