Wednesday, December 06, 2000

Travelers worry as Delta cuts flights

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — Delta Air Lines on Tuesday fought back against possible labor trouble during the upcoming holiday travel season, cutting at least a hundred flights from its daily schedule while asking for a temporary restraining order against its pilots.

        But the effort to reassure travelers as the airline heads into one of its most important months of the year did not calm travelers' fears at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

        “We're all feeling the pain (of uncertainty),” said Elizabeth English of West Ches ter who flew in from Kingsport, Tenn., on Tuesday afternoon. Ms. English flies four to five times a year, mostly on Delta.

        “It's an uneasy feeling.”

        The Atlanta-based airline said it was cutting 100-125 flights from its daily schedule of about 2,700 — about 4 percent of its daily total — to lessen its dependence on voluntary overtime by its 9,400 unionized pilots. About 1,000 pilots are based in Cincin nati, Delta's second-largest hub.

        The changes will go into effect immediately, said Delta chief executive officer Leo Mullin. He said preliminary data show the company dropping four places among major airlines for on-time performance in November because of continued labor strife.

        Question: What happened?
        Answer: Tuesday, Delta Air Lines asked a federal judge to grant a temporary restraining order preventing pilots from conducting a campaign to refuse to work overtime.Delta also said it is cutting 100 to 125 flights a day out of its 2,700-flight schedule.
        Q: What's next?
        A: Delta and the pilots meet in a hearing today. The negotiations came under federal mediation Friday, with federal mediators joining talks this week.
        Q: What does it mean?
        A: If the judge grants the order, pilots would be barred from continuing a campaign of refusing to work voluntary overtime. That could reassure passengers.
        But if the request for the restraining order is denied, Delta schedules could be thrown into chaos. In addition, individual pilots can still refuse overtime.
        Q: How does this affect Comair?
        A: The regional airline, a wholly owned Delta subsidiary, is not directly affected. Comair pilots have a separate contract with the company and have been negotiating since 1998.
        However, since many Delta flights connect to Comair flights and vice versa, Comair fliers could be inconvenienced.
        Q: How should fliers stay up to date on potential cancellations?
        A: Call Delta at (800) 325-1999, or look up real-time flight data at Delta officials suggest calling as much as five to six hours before flight time.
        Q: What notice will Delta give for canceled flights?
Delta officials say they will look at the schedule daily and make adjustments and notify fliers about changes.
        They would not say specifically how much lead time they would give, but said it is the company's goal to make sure fliers do not arrive at the airport and find out that their flight has been canceled.
        Delta also stressed that travelers should provide the airline with a contact number other than a travel agent.
        Q: What should fliers do if a flight is canceled?
        A: Try to find out as soon as possible, and don't hang up the phone. Instead, ask for alternate routing.
        Delta officials said the company will contact passengers to rebook them. No specific flights have been targeted, but the schedule will be looked at periodically to see where adjustments can be made, Delta officials said.

        Many experts lauded the cuts, saying they should lessen the number of delays and cancellations during the busy holiday season.

        “The impact should not be as great as what happened to United this summer,” said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.

        This summer, United Airlines pilots all but shut down the nation's largest air carrier by declining to work overtime, throwing the entire nation's system into the worst on record for on-time arrivals.

        When making out schedules, many major airlines — including Delta — rely extensively on pilots' requesting additional flying time.

        “This thing has the potential of screwing everything up for the en tire country, so Delta is doing the right thing,” said University of Portland (Oregon) business professor and national airline expert Richard D. Gritta.

        Also Tuesday, Delta asked an Atlanta federal court for a temporary restraining order against Delta's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association and 49 individual pilots.

        The two sides have been trying to negotiate a new contract since September 1999, with a 90-day federal mediation period beginning Dec. 1.

        In its 45-page brief, the airline said the pilots and union have led a concerted effort to organize a movement to refuse overtime, which would be a violation of federal law.

        The order would prohibit the union or pilots from continuing their alleged efforts but does not prohibit pilots from declining voluntary overtime on a case-by-case basis.

        “We feel (the restraining order) is very premature and could hamper us from reaching a final contract,” said Delta pilot Andy Deane of Naples, Fla. “This was really a surprise at this point in the process.”

        A hearing was scheduled this afternoon for both sides.

        Mr. Mullin said pilot overtime requests dropped 80 percent from last year, saying it indicated an organized effort.

        “(Pilots) feel they can pressure the company during the negotiation period, and we won't let that affect how well we serve our customers,” Mr. Mullin said.

        The union denied that it was leading an effort, saying it has actually discouraged pilots from refusing overtime assignments.

        “Our position has been unequivocal on this — we are opposed to any concerted activity regarding overtime flying,” said ALPA spokeswoman Karen Miller.

        Despite Delta's efforts, many fliers and travel agents are worried about the company's performance in the coming weeks.

        “I'm really leery about booking flights because you don't know what's going to take place,” said Brenda Banks, owner of Four Seasons Travel in Wyoming. “I'm just hoping they settle and get it straightened out before the Christmas holidays so we don't have the panic.”

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