Sunday, April 08, 2001

Delta deal within reach, head of pilots union says

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Labor relations at Delta Air Lines might be improving.

        Delta is the Atlanta-based parent of regional carrier Comair, the Northern Kentucky carrier that has been grounded by a pilots strike for 14 days.

        After almost three years of negotiations, a new deal between Delta and its nearly 10,000 pilots could come after a couple of days of talks, according to the chairman of the pilots union.

        In an interview with the Enquirer, Chuck Giambusso said the two sides are “48 hours ... two long, hard days of negotiation away from an agreement.”

        Mr. Giambusso's comments came the same week Delta chairman Leo Mullin said he was confident a deal could be reached without a strike.

   Here are the main issues separating Delta Air Lines and its 9,700-member pilots union:
   • Compensation: The pilots are looking to surpass the industry-leading contract signed by United pilots last year that included bumps in salary, pension and retirement benefits, along with better work rules.
   Union officials would not give details of their current proposals.
   The company proposal would make pilots the highest-paid and increase compensation 33.9 percent by the end of four years.
   Pilots union chairman Chuck Giambusso called the pilots' retirement proposal “aggressive” and indicated there might be room to give.
   • Delta Express: Included in the 9,700-member pilots union are 560 pilots at the airline's low-cost unit Delta Express, which was created in 1996 and primarily serves the Northeast and Midwest-to-Florida markets — avoiding the company's main hubs in Atlanta and Cincinnati.
   Those pilots are paid less than their mainline counterparts, even though they fly Boeing 737s, so the pilots are looking to equalize pay.
   The company has said it is willing to raise pay to levels higher than those at other low-cost carriers such as Southwest, and said it is open to further discussion when talks resume.
   • Job protection: The pilots are seeking a limit on the use of code-sharing, or using other airlines through mutual agreement to carry Delta passengers, arguing that such a practice takes jobs away from them.
   In addition, they are seeking a limit on the growth of Delta Connection carriers, which include Erlanger-based regional Comair. Comair pilots have been on strike since March 26, and one of their issues is to protect their current and future jobs and to have no limits placed on Comair.
   Delta has said it would limit future purchases of Canadair Regional Jets to 50-seaters, although it would keep the options on the 75 70-seaters on order. And Delta has said to its pilots that 85 percent of Delta Connection flights would be less than 900 miles and it would limit Delta Connection flying between cities served by the main line to no more than 6 percent of flying by the smaller carrier.
        “There still is a lot of work to be done, but both sides are going into this round of talks having done a lot of work and the options are there,” said Mr. Giambusso, chairman of the Master Executive Council of Delta's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association. “There is no reason to believe we cannot resolve this dispute in negotiations with the company.”

        That 30-day cooling-off period began March 29, when binding arbitration was rejected by leaders of the pilots union. Talks began in May 1999 and entered federal mediation last December.

        There are about 9,700 Delta pilots, including about 1,000 members at Delta's second-largest hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

        If the two sides don't reach a deal and President Bush doesn't receive a recommendation by the National Mediation Board to step in, the pilots could strike at 12:01 a.m. April 29.

        Such a strike would shut down the airline, and with the 1,350 pilots at Delta subsidiary Comair already on strike since March 26, the local airport would be all but deserted.

        The Delta/Comair tandem controls about 95 percent of all flights from the airport.

        The two sides are to meet at mediation board offices during the week of April 16, but no times have been scheduled.

Big issues to settle
        Mr. Giambusso said 20 out of the contract's 28 sections have been closed, and one includes definitions that will be settled after the main issues are decided.

        The remaining sticking points remain compensation (salary and retirement), raising pay at Delta's low-cost carrier Delta Express and what to do about the growth at regional carriers such as Comair — which mainline pilots think is taking routes and jobs away from them.

        According to company officials, the two sides are still about $1.5 billion apart in total compensation, and that big issues remain to be settled.

        But Mr. Mullin, who also is Delta's chief executive officer, expressed optimism that the airline, the nation's third-largest, would avoid a strike.

        He was quoted by Reuters as saying chances of a strike were “virtually zero,” although he said the Atlanta-based company has been hurt economically just by the threat of a walkout.

        “There is an extremely substantial book-away problem occurring at Delta right now,” said Mr. Mullin, whose company has already warned it would post a loss for the first quarter, which would be its first since March 1996.

        Mr. Giambusso said he would be disappointed if President Bush were to step in and prevent a strike by appointing a presidential emergency board, as he did in March to stop a strike by Northwest mechanics. An emergency board would extend the cooling-off period by 60 days, after which the pilots could strike if Congress decides not to intervene.

        “But on the other hand, and I want to be clear on this, if the president steps in, we would be very much in support of his decision and would not stand against the president,” Mr. Giambusso said.

Mutual support
        Mr. Giambusso said he has been following the Comair strike closely, even meeting with his counterpart at Comair's pilots union, local chairman J.C. Lawson III, last week.

        The two branches of the same union disagree on job protection, with Delta pilots seeking limits on growth at regional subsidiaries while Comair is seeking to protect future seats on planes purchased and have no limit on future growth.

        But Mr. Giambusso said many Delta pilots have even walked the Comair picket lines at the airport, and that apart from that issue, the two groups are in agreement.

        “If they get what they are seeking at the expense of us, we would support them, as we would hope they would support us,” Mr. Giambusso said. “That isn't to say they wouldn't be striving for more, as is their right. But it has been really overblown how much in conflict the two pilot groups are.”


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