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UAL’s chief apologizes in TV ads

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CHICAGO — UAL Corp., parent of United Airlines, put Chairman and Chief Executive James Goodwin in a television advertisement that began airing Thursday to apologize for flight disruptions at the world's largest airline.

The national apology is part of a campaign by the Chicago-based airline to win back customers after thousands of flight cancellations and delays worldwide in the past several months. In recent weeks, United also has placed newspaper ads and sent letters to customers, offering additional frequent-flier miles and discount coupons.

United began canceling hundreds of flights weekly in April because of crew shortages and, later, due to increased aircraft repairs. The airline blamed the slow pace of contract talks with pilots and with mechanics and others represented by the Machinists union. The employees became increasingly frustrated after missing target dates for agreements.

"There is every indication they are on track toward a Labor Day resolution," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater on Thursday, citing information from a meeting earlier this week with airline executives, including UAL President Rono Dutta.

The airline canceled 114 flights on Thursday and 180 on Wednesday. Of those, 11 Thursday and 53 Wednesday were blamed on bad weather. Those cancellations are in addition to a 3 percent reduction in the airline's daily schedule of 2,400 flights through October.

In the television ad, Goodwin explains the difficulties the airline has faced and what United is doing to stem the flight disruptions. The TV spot will air on national networks and cable outlets through next week. The airline didn't say how much the ad campaign will cost.

The airline and the pilots have said that they hope to reach agreement on a new contract by Sept. 4, the Labor Day holiday in the United States. The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents about 10,000 United pilots, said last week that negotiations had moved to the last two sections of the contract, pay and job protection. Those issues are the most difficult, the union said.

The pilots increasingly have turned down overtime assignments and began calling in sick more often since the company and their union failed to reach a contract agreement by April 12, the date on which their contract became amendable.

The pilots' pay was raised back to 1994 levels on April 12 as a result of provisions in their current contract, negotiated in 1994 when they gave up wage increases for UAL stock because of the airline's weak financial condition.

The Machinists, which represent about 44,000 United mechanics, ramp workers and other employees, expected to reach a new contract with the company by July 12. Many of these workers also are being paid at 1994 levels because their 1994 contract agreement also provided UAL stock for pay cuts.

Last week, the company began mandating overtime for some mechanics and workers in related jobs because of a backlog of aircraft repairs in some cities such as Chicago, Indianapolis and Portland, Ore. The carrier also suspended 36 mechanics last week who had called in sick earlier in the week and weren't able to substantiate their illness.

UAL employees own about 55 percent of the company.