Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Judge warns both Comair and pilots


He tells them to keep public out of dispute

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — A federal judge, noting the holiday travel season is nearly here, issued a warning Monday to Comair and its pilots' union about dragging the public into their labor dispute.

        U.S. District Court Judge William O. Bertelsman acted Monday to allow the two parties, which have been negotiating a new contract since June 1998, to look into each other's records, saying he hoped the move will send a warning to both sides.

        “The only reason I'm getting involved is that the public is deeply involved in this, and maybe this will send a message,” the judge said.

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        Comair had asked the judge to hold the union and some individual pilots in contempt for allegedly causing hundreds of flights to be unnecessarily canceled and delayed, saying both problems have been gradually increasing since October. The judge, however, declined to act. The union denies the charges.

        These kinds of situations are “getting tiresome for both labor and management throughout the industry, and it's hard to have any sympathy for either side,”

        said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “And the only ones losing in this is the general traveling public.”

        Comair is alleging that the Air Line Pilots Association and 12 individual pilots are conducting a campaign of scratching flights unnecessarily, which would violate an injunction issued by Judge Bertelsman on Dec. 21, 1999.

        The company accuses another seven pilots of conducting a sickout, saying that November cancellations were more than double the normal amount, with more expected this month.

        The union says it is not involved in any such cancellation campaign. On Monday, ALPA lawyers accused Comair of falsely accusing some pilots of not being sick when they truly were ill or injured.

        Thursday, the Hebron-based regional airline (a wholly owned Delta Air Lines subsidiary) asked Judge Bertelsman to schedule a discovery hearing to determine whether the union and the pilots were in contempt of the previous injunction.

        On Monday, Judge Bertelsman did not schedule such a hearing but did allow Comair access to ALPA records and personnel, re stricting the search to possible contempt charges. But he also allowed ALPA access to Comair records on the same subject.

        “Contempt charges are a serious matter, and hopefully this will allow both sides to step back before we get in any deeper,” the judge said.

        The union for American Airlines pilots was fined $45 million in the spring of 1999 for violating another judge's order and conducting a sick-out.

        Comair says it canceled 273 flights in November (compared with 158 in November 1999) and 120 this month through Dec. 10 (there were 344 cancellations in all of December 1999). The airline has 803 total daily departures, including 311 from its biggest hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. In February 1998, the systemwide departure number was 650.

        The company has fired one pilot who is also named in the complaint for excessive cancellations.

        ALPA lawyers Monday said the company's legal actions are part of “a smear campaign” intended to intimidate pilots as contract negotiations continue.

        “We had one pilot with a herniated disc, another had ankle and tendon problems and in a cast, and another had a sinus infection and was on antibiotics,” said ALPA lawyer Marcus Migliore. “Their names were made public, and the company never checked as to whether they were sick.”

        Mr. Jenkins said that many times unions do try to discourage such campaigns, but that “they can take a life of their own.”

        “Some pilots just get going on their own agenda, and put the public interest last,” he said.

        Judge Bertelsman made a similar observation Monday, saying Comair and its pilots risk losing customers in addition to stranding travelers if the dispute continues.

        He said if either side discovers any injunction violations that take place after Monday, any individual pilot will be fined $5,000, and double the previous amount each time after that. If ALPA is found to have been involved, the fine will go up to $50,000, and double the previous time after that. The fines would be payable to the court and not Comair.

        But the judge also said Comair could face penalties if ALPA's record search shows that the company did falsely accuse individual pilots or was using possible contempt charges as an intimidation tool.

       



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