Sunday, March 18, 2001

Shutdown at Comair would have big impact

Carrier to cease all operations if pilots strike

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — Whether it be workers at the pretzel shop in Comair's Concourse C at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport planning on half-days or travelers from Roanoke, Va., looking for alternative routes, preparations have begun for a potential pilots strike at the regional carrier.

        And airport concessionaires, travel agents and local businesses agree that the impact would be huge locally — almost as big as a potential strike at Delta Air Lines — and could reach throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast.

        “The buzz from the pilots is that the strike is going to happen, and we're looking at several options,” says Joe Pagano, who manages four restaurants in Concourse C. “We may tell people to take vacation time, and some employees are actually excited to get some time off. Still, it would definitely cripple us, and we've got to start getting ready.”

    Comair says it will notify passengers as soon as possible in advance of cancellations and help accommodate them in case of a strike.
    But some hang-ups are expected.
    Here are tips for people who have Comair tickets for next week or are planning a trip on Comair in the coming weeks:
    • Hard copy: If you have an e-ticket, get a paper ticket as soon as possible. This makes it easier if you have to be accommodated on another airline with no access to Delta/Comair's reservation system.
    • Book early: This will enable you to find available alternative routes. If there is a strike, flights on other carriers to cities served by Comair will fill up quickly.
    • Cellphone: If you get stuck in line, it might be quicker to call Comair's reservation desk or your travel agent.
    • Pack ahead: Trips might involve several transfers and waits, so pack an overnight carry-on bag and bring snacks and water. This is especially true for families.
    Phone: (800) 221-1212 (This is the main reservation line for Delta Air Lines which handles Comair reservations).
    For flight information: or (800) 325-1999.
        Locally based Comair actually is much closer to a strike than its parent company, Delta.

        Comair's 1,350-member pilots union ends voting today on the company's latest contract offer, with the results to be announced Monday. About 1,000 of those pilots are locally based.

        If the proposed contract is turned down - a distinct possibility since the union leadership declined to endorse it — the two sides would have a week to reach a deal. Without such an agreement, the pilots could strike at 12:01 a.m. March 26, unless President Bush steps in and appoints a Presidential Emergency Board, which would extend a 30-day cooling-off period an additional 60 days.

        Comair has said that it would shut down operations completely in case of a strike - meaning the now bustling concourse could be deserted next Monday night.

        “If Comair has a strike, people are going to start to realize how much they depend on Comair,” says Michael Geraci, owner of the Wyoming branch of Carson Wagonlit Travel. “Everyone is so worried about what's going to happen with Delta, and they don't understand what a Comair strike would do to them.”

Altering travel plans
        Comair is the nation's second-largest regional carrier, serving about 600,000 passengers a month.

        Locally, Comair operates the most flights at the airport - almost double the number of Delta's daily departures.

        In addition, through Delta's increased reliance on the “feeder” system, Comair is the primary presence in several smaller cities. With a Comair strike, Delta or its subsidiaries would lose all presence in 14 cities, including Lansing, Mich., Appleton, Wis., and Charlottesville, Va.

        And while there are other options from Delta and Delta Connection and other carriers in Roanoke, Comair's convenience and jet service have made it the market leader there.

        “Everyone says you have to connect through Atlanta to get anywhere,” Terry Gossage said last week while waiting for a recent flight home to the western Virginia city. “But where I live, we say you connect through Cincinnati because of Comair. If they go on strike, there will be a lot of people scrambling.”

        Local travelers also could be left with long waits and unusual transfers. For example, officials at Toyota's North American manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger use Comair for more than half of their 500 to 600 monthly flights. They are exploring different ways to get around.

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        One flight especially important to Toyota goes to Huntsville, Ala. Comair recently added direct flights between Cincinnati and that northeastern Alabama city after Toyota said it would build a plant there.

        “We're looking at backup plans because we have to get there, but a shutdown would definitely make for longer days and frequent transfers,” Toyota spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel said. “And that's not mentioning the people who come here to call on us.”

Where's the money?
        Lost spending from passengers traveling to the Tristate, or even connecting in Cincinnati to Delta, would probably be the main economic loss locally if a strike happens. The only lost Comair salaries would be from the pilots themselves.

        Comair employs about 2,600 nonpilots locally, and company officials say all will be paid and receive full benefits in the case of a strike. System-wide, the number of nonpilot employees is about 4,000.

        But at Auntie Anne's pretzel shop in Concourse C, shift manager Valencia Morris said it's possible her managers will cut some employees' hours, even if they stay open to serve airport employees.

        “I don't think anybody will be laid off, but we might be working only half-days or something,” Ms. Morris said.

        Airport finance director Sheila Hammons, who oversees concessions, says one or two concourse businesses may be required to stay open, but that others may go dark if Comair ceases operations entirely.

        “We're looking at contingencies, but we and the concessionaires just don't know what's going to happen,” Ms. Hammons said. “It really depends on how Comair utilizes the facility on what we need to do.”

        The airport also would be out approximately $13,000 daily in landing fees, Ms. Hammons said. But contracts with all tenant airlines state that if the airport does not meet its annual budget, the airlines have to make up the difference at the end of the year.

        Overall, the impact on Northern Kentucky's economy could be huge if the strike lasts long, said Dan Tobergte, senior vice president for Tri-County Economic Development Corp., Northern Kentucky's regional economic development agency.

        Mr. Tobergte said it would be impossible to estimate a dollar amount. But a Tri-Ed economic impact study of Comair's new headquarters done three years ago projected that the new building alone would generate $383 million in new business sales and 5,000 new jobs over 10 years.

        For Mr. Pagano, who oversees the Over-the-Rhine Tavern, Freshens, Rapido's and the Cincy Sports Pub in Concourse C, layoffs are the last resort.

        But he says his parent company, Anton Airfood, would take a hit, losing the business of as many as 2,000 customers a day.

        “We've got about 54 hourly employees and we've contacted the Labor Board to see what our options are,” Mr. Pagano says. “We're just like everyone else - waiting to see what happens before we can do anything.”

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