Sunday, March 25, 2001

Strike nears; Comair scraps more flights

President of airline joins talks in D.C.

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — As the number of hours until a possible Comair pilots strike dwindled Saturday, the list of possible cancellations grew longer.

        The Erlanger-based airline announced it could scratch most of Monday's schedule today if no progress is made at the bargaining table in Washington, D.C. And while both sides said negotiations were continuing, neither offered many details.

        If no agreement is reached by midnight, and President Bush does not step in, the pilots have said they will strike at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

        The decision about Mon day's flights will be made at 3 p.m. today, and would affect all flights from midnight to 6 p.m., or about 740 out of the airline's 815 daily departures.

        Comair officials also said they were canceling 17 percent of today's schedule, or about 100 flights.

        “We could just let them know tomorrow or tomorrow night that we're shutting down flights, but we're not interested in stranding people,” Comair president Randy Rademacher said Saturday at a news conference before flying to Washington to join the talks. “That's not good enough for Comair. We want an agreement, but we want to make sure our passengers and employees are taken care of.”

        Comair, a Delta Air Lines subsidiary and the nation's second-largest regional airline, would shut down completely if pilots walk off.

        Comair serves about 25,000 passengers daily, including about 20,000 at its primary hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport - where it operates the most flights of any airline.

        Passengers were being rerouted primarily to Delta or its other subsidiaries, but some have been rerouted to six other airlines with which Comair has agreements.

        Mr. Rademacher would

        not estimate how much accommodations on other airlines to date have cost the company, stressing that most are being absorbed by the Delta system.

        Carol Taylor of the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda, N.Y., said the airline had already canceled her Monday flight home.

        “We spent an hour and a half at the Buffalo airport last night making sure we could get back home Monday,” said Mrs. Taylor, who was visiting her daughter and son-in-law. “They got us on a regular Delta plane, but it's a later flight and we're missing a day of work. Still, we're lucky to have a flight back.”

        Since they serve many of the same cities as Comair, Delta and its subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines most likely would pick up the bulk of Comair's passengers.

        Both have their main hubs at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, and a Comair shutdown could slow down the already congested Atlanta facility even more, said University of Portland (Ore.) professor and airline expert Richard Gritta.

        In addition, Delta is already known for running full planes, and may have a problem handling the extra load.

        Mr. Rademacher said that any stranded employees, including pilots, would be flown home at the airline's expense.

        Paul Lackie, spokesman for Comair's 1,350-member branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, welcomed the news.

        “We're glad to see that, for we were prepared for our pilots to be abandoned and we were prepared to take care of them and get them home,” Mr. Lackie said.

        Other than that, company and union officials said little on the status of negotiations, and neither side would speculate on the likelihood of a late agreement.

        Mr. Rademacher confirmed the two parties met Friday, and that mediation board member Magdalena Jacobsen joined the talks Saturday morning.

        But he would not offer specifics or say how far apart the two parties are. Pilots have previously said they want increases in pay, especially for lower-seniority pilots, a company-funded pension plan, better work rules and an improved scope clause that covers future jobs.

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