United Airlines pilots have agreed to a new joint union contract, bringing the airline closer to finalizing its merger with Continental.
The new four-year contract, which includes raises averaging 43 percent and bigger retirement contributions, covers those who came from United as well as pilots who flew for Continental before the carriers merged in 2010 into United Continental Holdings Inc. Pilots now only fly under the United name.
As part of the deal, the airline's roughly 10,000 pilots also will divide a $400 million lump sum. In exchange, the contract gives United Continental the ability to launch a major expansion of the use of larger regional jets with 70 or more seats. Those jets, most ranging in size from 50 to 76 seats, are operated by regional airlines.
United and other carriers have been especially eager to expand usage of the larger 76-seat planes because they can be flown profitably even at higher fuel prices. But pilots at the big airlines generally oppose them because they don't want the airline to shift too much flying to the smaller, cheaper planes.
The raises and some other changes take effect immediately. However, United and former Continental pilots are still flying separately, a practice that will continue until they finish sorting out the seniority list.
Seniority is important to pilots because it governs who gets the most desirable schedules and who gets to fly which planes, which is a big factor in their pay. Seniority integration is expected to take several months and often includes binding arbitration.
The Air Line Pilots Association said Saturday that 67 percent of the United and Continental pilots who voted elected to approve the contract. All told, nearly 98 percent of the 10,193 eligible pilots participated in the ratification vote.
For pilots who came from United, the new contract replaces a deal made in 2005, when that airline was operating under bankruptcy protection. Union representatives for United and Continental pilots said the contract hails the end of bankruptcy and concessionary contracts.