Sunday, May 13, 2001

Comair pilots reject deal

1,042-99 vote casts doubt on future

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Comair's pilots Saturday resoundingly defeated a proposed settlement crafted by federal mediators, sending the seven-week strike and the company's future into uncertain territory.

        No talks are likely soon, because federal mediators have said they won't restart discussions for at least 30 days. Meanwhile, the airline will lay off 2,000 nonpilot employees today — including 1,500 based at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

        In a telephone vote that began Thursday and ended at 2 p.m. Saturday, 1,042 pilots rejected a deal proposed by the National Mediation Board that would have made them the highest-paid in the regional industry.

        There were 99 yes votes. Of the union's 1,350 members, 1,175 were eligible to vote.

        “The pilots have spoken and they have spoken dramatically,” said J.C. Lawson III, chairman of Comair's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, at a news conference at the Riverfront Radisson.

        The airline had no comment on the vote, except for issuing a statement.

        “This is a disappointing day,” Comair president Randy Rademacher said. “However, the courage, strength and support the non-pilot employees have shown for this airline and each other is inspirational. I deeply regret the significant impact this vote will have on them.”

        Comair and its parent company, Delta Air Lines, have been losing $4 million daily, or $196 million through today, the 49th day of the strike — now the 42nd-longest out of 162 U.S. airline work stoppages. Industry analysts say the layoffs that start today will save the company $1 million a week.

        Given Saturday's landslide result, no end appears in sight, which could be bad news for Comair.

        During a visit to Cincinnati on Thursday, Delta president Fred Reid said that if the deal were voted down, there would be no further negotiation since it was the best Comair could offer.

        In addition, union and company officials have said that mediation board member Magdalena Jacobsen promised that if the deal was defeated, she would not try to restart talks for at least 30 days.

        Mediation board officials did not return calls seeking comment late Saturday.

        Mr. Lawson said the union stands ready to restart talks at any time, but did not say when or if he planned to contact the company.

        The stalemate means the extensive damage done to both sides could get worse. Last week, the company promised to up the stakes, saying it could go so far as to close the Erlanger-based regional carrier.

        The company has already eliminated 200 pilot positions while ridding itself of 17 planes.

        “I think this is going to get bad for the airline,” said Ray Neidl, airline analyst for the Wall Street firm AMR Amro. “What the pilots are asking for cannot be granted, and it's almost as if they are on the Bataan death march.”

        Mr. Lawson said the No. 1 concern for the pilots continues to be improved work rules, saying the rejected deal would have extended the maximum duty day 45 minutes and reduced the amount of time pilots would have to rest while out of town.

        He would not comment on whether he was satisfied with the pay levels, which would have pushed Comair pilot pay to 1 percent higher than that of Atlantic Coast Airlines, another regional carrier affiliated with Delta.

        Mr. Lawson did say that he believed company officials when they said they could close Comair.

        “If in fact that is what they do, then we'll have 1,350 pilots looking for jobs elsewhere,” Mr. Lawson said. “I don't think that any pilot chooses to intentionally harm this airline, but if in fact we have to find jobs at other airlines, I believe the pilots have spoken.”

        Wall Street analyst Sam Buttrick said he was not surprised by the vote, especially since he said the proposal under consideration closely resembled a company plan rejected 1,090-6 the week before the strike began.

        “Clearly this is not good for the airline,” said Mr. Buttrick, airline analyst for UBS Warburg. “But I would expect that the airline would have more to give, but only if they can preserve the meaningful wage differential between the regional and mainline pilots.”

        Pilots and their families gathered Saturday at a Covington meeting room, but would not allow reporters inside. Mr. Lawson said the event was not a celebration.

        Meanwhile at Comair headquarters, those being laid off and their families gathered to learn the vote. Reporters also were not allowed on Comair property.

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