July 30, 2008 / 7:55 PM / 11 years ago

UPDATE 2-UAL says pilots abuse sick leave to disrupt flights

(Recasts, adds pilot response, more complaint details)

CHICAGO, July 30 (Reuters) - UAL Corp UAUA.O, parent of United Airlines, accused its pilots’ union and “small group” of its members in a federal lawsuit of misusing sick leave and taking other steps the company said led to hundreds of canceled flights this month.

The unusual but certainly not unprecedented legal move comes amid growing tension between cash-strapped U.S. airlines and their unions as carriers, including United, cut jobs and routes to counter the financial pressures of skyrocketing fuel prices this year.

“This was a step we did not want to take, and one that we tried extraordinarily hard to avoid, pursuing every other viable solution with ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association),” John Tague, United’s chief operating officer, said in a statement to employees.

United sought a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in Chicago to halt what it said in a statement were “organized and unlawful job actions” that partly include a “public campaign of intimidation.”

United said in the complaint that it was forced to cancel 329 flights July 19-27, costing it millions in potential profit and disrupting travel plans for 36,000 people.

United alleged the union has engaged in a campaign “for more than a year” to encourage members to “adhere strictly” to contract terms and refuse voluntary assignments as a way of pressuring management to open contract talks early. The current agreement expires at the end of 2009.

United also asserted the union and four pilots organized “sick leave abuses” in response to United’s plans announced in June to cut 950 pilot jobs as part of capacity cuts blamed on financial constraints linked to a doubling of fuel prices this year.

The union confirmed late on Wednesday that it had been sued but declined comment other than to say public statements by airline officials contained “inaccurate and alarmingly misleading information.”

ALPA did not elaborate.

The company said the rate of first officer sick leave is up 103 percent this summer, but did not identify a comparable period. The carrier also said in 2006, pilots were five times more likely to fly additional trips than they are now.

United said this month it would eliminate nearly 13 percent of its work force as part of a downsizing effort. ALPA represents more than 6,000 pilots at the carrier. (Reporting by Kyle Peterson and John Crawley; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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