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United Airlines flight attendants ratify contract

Joshua Freed, AP Airlines Writer

Flight attendants at United Airlines approved a new contract on Tuesday that puts the airline a step closer to combining those workers with their colleagues who came from Continental.

The vote means the airline can soon begin negotiating a joint contract to cover flight attendants from both airlines.

The new contract includes an immediate 10 percent raise and a $5,000 signing bonus, according to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. The deal was approved by 70.4 percent of the 15,000 flight attendants who came from United, the union said. It said the ratified contract requires the airline to begin bargaining on a new contract no later than this summer.

United and Continental merged in 2010, but unionized employees from the two companies still work separately. In June flight attendants voted to combine under the AFA. Continental flight attendants had been represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and they will work under a contract negotiated by that union until a joint deal is approved.

There are big differences between the current United and Continental flight attendant contracts that will have to be worked out in negotiations for a combined deal.

Health benefits for United workers are defined in their contract, while the Continental contract leaves it up to company policy, according to AFA spokesman Christopher Clarke. Furlough protections are different, too.

The new contract at United makes it easier for flight attendants to swap scheduled flying. In that regard, it's closer to the one at Continental.

After a joint contract is reached, the union will work out a combined seniority list. Seniority can be one of the trickiest parts of combining workgroups because it governs a worker's place in line for more desirable schedules.

The new contract replaces one signed in 2005, when United was operating under bankruptcy protection. Flight attendants took pay cuts and made other major concessions then, so the union viewed the new contract as the first chance to improve their situation since before bankruptcy. The airline emerged from it in 2006.

Greg Davidowitch, president of the union at United, told workers in a letter that the new contract's main goals were "to secure significant compensation and quality of work life improvements that you told us were must-haves" before moving onto talks for a joint contract.

Shares of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc. rose 50 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $20.57 in afternoon trading.