Sunday, March 25, 2001

Commonly asked questions

        Question: What is a strike and why could it happen now?

        Answer: A strike is when employees, in this case Comair pilots, refuse to work. It is generally a tool used by organized labor and by employee groups with specific skills, such as auto workers or airline mechanics and pilots.

        In the airline and railroad industry, management and labor must go through a lengthy negotiation process laid out by the federal Railway Labor Act. That process includes a release to a 30-day cooling-off period by the National Mediation Board that must occur before the two sides can seek “self help.” For the pilots, that means a strike, and for the company, that means a lockout or imposing work rules.

        Comair has been negotiating with its pilots since June 1998 and federal mediators have been involved since August 1999. The board released the parties on Feb. 25, beginning a 30-day cooling-off period that expires at midnight. The pilots legally are free to walk off after that, meaning the strike would begin at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

        Q: What could stop a strike?

        A: The two sides started one last negotiation session Friday at the mediation board's Washington, D.C., offices, and a tentative agreement could still be reached before the deadline.

        And in past cases, unions have stopped the clock to consider last-minute proposals from management.

        Barring that, the only thing that could prevent a strike is if President Bush steps in and appoints a Presidential Emergency Board. To do that, he would have to receive a recommendation to do so from the mediation board, which would base its recommendation on whether a strike would significantly affect transportation and the economy in a major region of the country.

        An emergency board would extend the cooling-off period 60 days. The president would appoint three members to it, and they would hear from both sides during the first 30 days, and then issue their recommendations in the final 30 days on what they feel a contract should say. Both sides can refuse the recommendations, meaning a strike could still happen.

        In rare cases (and almost never in airline cases), Congress has stepped in and legislated a binding contract at that point.

        Q: What do I do if I'm traveling on Comair in the next week and there's a strike?

        A: The airline has said it would shut down completely if there were a strike, while cancellations have increased daily since Wednesday as Comair prepared for a possible work stoppage.

        The carrier's first choice is to reroute passengers on parent company Delta Air Lines or one of its subsidiaries.

        But if those flights are full, or Delta doesn't reach a destination served by Comair, six airlines and their subsidiaries have an agreement to handle Comair's passengers — Continental, US Airways, American, TWA, Northwest and Midwest Express.

        If you suspect you'll be flying on one of these, you should get a paper ticket that would be honored.

        Travellers flying today should call ahead to Comair or Delta at (800) 354-9822 or (800) 325-1999 or check the Web site at for possible cancellations.

        Q: Why do the pilots appear willing to strike?

        A: They say the company's latest offer does not meet their needs with regard to pay, retirement benefits, work rules, and scope, or future jobs. The union is especially looking to increase the pay of less-senior pilots, implement a company-funded pension plan, decrease the length of a duty day and increase rest periods.

        The company says its last proposal, which the pilots turned down nearly unanimously in a ratification vote, would have made Comair pilots the highest-paid in the regional industry.


— James Pilcher

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