United Bumps Retiree Travel Perk to Back of Line

By Staff Report

Apr. 20, 2011

United Airlines retirees will take a back seat to current employees under a new policy on travel privileges at United Continental Holdings Inc.

The decision, announced late last month, is angering United retirees, who previously had priority over current employees when flying standby on otherwise empty seats.

The new policy, which takes effect Jan. 1, gives all current and retired workers of the Chicago-based airline eight vacation passes a year that guarantee both priority when flying standby. Once those passes are used up, however, current employees get priority over retirees.

The policy is similar to Continental’s rules before the airline merged with United. Under United’s old plan, retirees with more than 25 years of service had top priority when it came to flying standby on unused seats.

Flight privileges are among the most cherished perks for airline employees and retirees, especially in the case of United, which slashed its pension program in bankruptcy.

More than 3,600 people have signed an online petition objecting to the change. Among the comments by hundreds of retirees: “This is unbelievable. I worked years giving back my pay and then years with no pay raise at all. My medical is ridiculous. … My pension was destroyed. All we have left are our travel benefits and now we are supposed to accept this package. United has never gotten the concept of treating their employees well.”

As the company merges the two airlines, it has to choose common policies for a host of benefits.

“We went through a careful and thoughtful process to align the travel benefit programs of our two companies,” United said in a written statement. “This program recognizes the hard work of both active employees and retirees, and provides meaningful travel privileges that are competitive with the industry.”

As with the paying public, the travel experience for employees is determined by status.

While all employees and retirees technically have the privilege to fly in unused coach seats whenever they’re available, the reality is the seats are limited.

The new policy of eight vacation passes is an improvement for Continental retirees, who previously didn’t get priority boarding privileges. Those were reserved for current employees.

But Continental executives aren’t likely to be happy with the new rules, either.

Continental’s old policy gave priority to management over rank-and-file. The new policy doesn’t distinguish between managers and line workers.  

Filed by John Pletz of Crain’s Chicago Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail


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