Sunday, April 29, 2001

Options bleak for Comair

Airline forms contingency plans as losses mount from walkout

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Selling more planes. Cutting more pilot positions. Losing routes to sister carriers. And the gradual dismantling of Greater Cincinnati's only locally based airline, which until Friday had 2,600 local nonpilot employees.

        All of these are possibilities facing Comair if the pilots strike — now in day 35 — continues, says the man who used to run Comair and now leads the network connecting Comair and other regional carriers to parent company Delta Air Lines.

        “Comair may be a very different company in the future,” said David Siebenburgen, president and chief executive officer of Delta Connection Inc., Delta's network of feeder airlines. “If pilots don't fly airplanes, by definition, you don't have an airline.

    The talks between Comair and its striking pilots extended a day more than scheduled Saturday, but neither side would comment on what happened.
    The first set of talks between the two sides since the strike began March 26 opened Wednesday and were supposed to conclude Friday.
    But negotiation teams from the regional carrier and its pilots union stayed in Washington, D.C., an extra day, where further discussions took place.
    The talks are being held at the offices of the National Mediation Board.
        “We still have a tremendous capability for being a great airline, but we are building our contingency plans for all the things that may happen in the future.”

        Mr. Siebenburgen, who was Comair president until Delta announced it was buying the Erlanger-based carrier in the fall of 1999, was interviewed by the Enquirer in Salt Lake City during Delta's annual meeting. He spoke before Friday's announcement that Comair was laying off 2,000 nonpilot employees, including 1,500 who were based locally.

        The other Delta Connection carriers he oversees are SkyWest, AC Jet and Atlantic Southeast, where the current pilots contract expires in September 2002.

        Comair's 1,350 pilots — most of them based in the Tristate — walked March 26 after talks broke down over work rules such as length of day, retirement benefits, job protection and pay.

        Talks restarted last week for the first time since the strike began and continued through Saturday. But if no progress is made, several options will exist for Comair, Delta Connection and Delta, Mr. Siebenburgen said.

        He would not offer any specific time frames, but said none of the options is good for Comair. And even if an agreement is reached, the company would take a year or longer to recover its current growth rate.

        Paul Lackie, spokesman for Comair's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, acknowledged that parent Delta, as well as Comair, has alternatives that go all the way up to closing the airline entirely.

        “But so do the pilots, and our alternatives are career-enhancing while Delta's alternatives seem to be self-destructive,” Mr. Lackie said. “It's Comair's management that is committing suicide by focusing on shutting down rather than on achieving a contract.”

        Mr. Siebenburgen said this month's return of 17 aircraft, including eight Canadair Regional Jets, could be the first in a series of fleet reductions.

        “If you can't fly your planes, you've got to get rid of your planes,” he said.

        The planes were returned to CRJ manufacturer Bombardier for remarketing. On Wednesday, fellow Delta Connection carrier Sky West said it was taking five of the jets while adding to its route structure in the western United States.

        Mr. Siebenburgen said there is no plan to roll Comair's operations over to other Delta Connection carriers, and that other airlines are clamoring for the planes.

        “Until now, there has been no such thing as a used regional jet,” Mr. Siebenburgen said. “You had to stand in line. Now, I've got other airlines calling me to say "Are there any more?'

        “There are a lot of airlines, both within Delta Connection and outside, who are interested in these planes,” Mr. Siebenburgen said.

        Pilots at two of the other Delta Connection carriers — AC Jet and Atlantic Southeast — are represented by the same union as Comair, and would refuse to fly the routes, considering them “struck work,” Mr. Lackie said.

        Still, there are other alternatives, including providing the planes to an international company, which could supply the pilots, Mr. Siebenburgen said.

        In addition, Comair had 12 planes on order over the next year until the company indefinitely suspended delivery at the same time it said it was returning the planes.

        Mr. Siebenburgen said those planned additional planes could go to another Delta Connection carrier, which could fly the routes intended for Comair.

        “In the meantime, while this goes on and on and on and on, it's incumbent upon the company - Comair and Delta - to do something with all aircraft, including the ones that are idled,” Mr. Siebenburgen said. “They can't sit there forever and just do nothing with them.”

        And there might be a way to get Delta Connection involved in the routes not being served by an idled Comair, he said, without offering specifics.

        “When you talk about all the other regional flying Comair does today and was going do in future, that need still exists,” Mr. Siebenburgen said. “And questions will be seriously asked about how that void can be filled ... and as things go forward, I've got to look at this from the Delta Connection perspective in my role with Delta Air Lines.

        “Comair does not have an exclusive contract on any of the flying it does or any of the new flying it was supposed to get.”

        Otherwise, another carrier will take over the booming regional market left by Comair here in Cincinnati and in Orlando, Fla., where Comair had its second-largest hub, Mr. Siebenburgen said.

        “It's not reasonable to think a tremendous service void in Cincinnati and Orlando will last forever because a group of pilots say "I'm not going to fly there,'” Mr. Siebenburgen said. “That long-term hiccup would not prevail. Market forces will come together and change that.”

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