Monday, February 12, 2001

Contract deal elusive for Comair, pilots

Parent Delta is closer in its talks with pilots

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Delta Air Lines appears well on its way toward signing a new contract with its pilots, but the airline with the most flights at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport could be headed the other way.

        Hebron-based regional carrier Comair and its 1,700 pilots have been at a near impasse in their contract negotiations for months, and have been negotiating for 2 1/2 years. In addition, both sides have requested an arbitrated settlement Feb. 28. If either side doesn't agree, Comair and its pilots would be released to a 30-day cooling-off period, meaning a strike could be allowed by April 1.

        That's the same date that Delta and its pilots could strike as well, meaning the airport would all but shut down with its two main tenants not operating.

        Delta's pilots union today will release the results of its strike authorization vote, with an overwhelming yes vote expected. That would allow union leaders to call a strike if and when one is legally allowed.

        Thursday, however, Delta made major concessions in its contract talks, increasing the possibility of a rapid settlement and decreasing the chances of a dual strike.

        But that same offer angered Comair pilots by placing limits on the size of the regional jets used by Comair.

        That, coupled with the fact that negotiations have been continuing since June 1998 and in federal mediation since August 1999, leaves experts predicting a strike could come soon for Comair.

        “And the unions have done such a good job of firing up the membership that the rank and file may be too angry to reach an agreement,” said Goldman Sachs airline industry analyst Glenn Engel.

        Comair, started in 1977 as a three-plane operation, is now the nation's No. 2 regional carrier in terms of passengers. It operates about 57 percent of the daily flights locally, by far the most at the airport.

        Comair also handles about 500,000 passengers a month in Cincinnati, and a strike would not only inconvenience those travelers, but hurt parent company Delta. Forty-five percent of all Comair passengers transfer to the main Delta network, and a Comair strike would render unprofitable the Cincinnati hub, the Atlanta-based carrier's second-largest.

        Both Comair management and officials for Comair's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association say they are committed to reaching an agreement and don't want a strike.

        Yet in August, 99.6 of Comair's pilots said yes in a separate strike authorization vote, with 97 percent of the membership participating.

        “We are willing and able to strike if need be, although we don't want to,” Comair ALPA spokesman Paul Lackie said. “The objective is not to strike, but sometimes you're the only one who will stick up for you.”

        Comair spokeswoman Meghan Glynn said the company also is preparing for a strike and would shut down operations if the pilots walk off the job.

        “It is unfortunate, though, that the leadership of the Comair pilots union has made such unrealistic economic demands,” Ms. Glynn said.

        Union officials say their salary demands aren't out of line, and they aren't asking to be paid the same as Delta pilots. But they do want a raise — a senior Comair regional jet captain makes about $66,900 annually, fourth among regional airlines that fly CRJs and behind some pilots at other regionals who fly turboprops, according to Atlanta-based Air Inc., a pilot placement service.

        Mr. Lackie said Comair's rate should match the same ratio per passenger as a Delta pilot, and receive the same retirement benefits and work rules — all issues where the two sides remain far apart.

        “Once that cockpit door is closed, a pilot is a pilot and all the skills are the same,” Mr. Lackie said. “Of course, a pilot should be paid more for the number of lives under his care. But beyond that, we're all the same and we should be treated with the same amount of respect.”

        Thursday's Delta offer would limit future purchases of Canadair Regional Jets to 50-seaters, possibly allaying Delta pilot concerns that they would be replaced.

        “We are incensed as we have been all along that Delta and other pilot groups are attempting to control planes that they don't even fly,” Mr. Lackie said.

        Whatever happens, the Comair negotiations are being closely watched by other regional carriers and their pilots because of Comair's status as a trend-setter — it was the first to use the regional jet, now a staple throughout the industry.

        “Comair is one of the nation's largest regional carriers, so it only makes sense that any agreement or job action will make waves,” said Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airlines Association.

- Contract deal elusive for Comair, pilots
Questions, answers on effects of a strike

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