Sunday, May 13, 2001

Pilots' houses, wheels on block

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One is preparing to put his house on the market. Another is looking for a buyer for his truck. A third is ready to lose his job if it means a better life for someone else in the future. And yet another has already contacted three companies about other employment.

        Four Comair pilots interviewed recently say they are prepared to do whatever it takes - including prolonging the strike, losing their jobs and going to another airline — to get what they are looking for in a new contract.

        And they say they represent many of their fellow pilots, who continue to be on strike after rejecting a proposed settlement offer on Saturday crafted by the National Mediation Board.

        “If we get the contract we are asking for, we'll change the industry,” said Leslie Hock, 24, a Canadair first officer with 1 1/2 years seniority who is based in Houston. “And if I personally lose that job in my battle, it would be a victory for me if other guys and companies benefit.”

        Comair's 1,350 pilots walked off the job on March 26, citing poor working conditions, inadequate retirement benefits and job protection, and low pay.

        According to Kit Darby, a United pilot and founder and president of Air Inc., an Atlanta-based pilot placement service, there are four options for pilots during a strike:

        • Continue to hold out for what they want.

        • Get a job at another airline.

        • Settle.

        • Cross the picket line and offer to work for the company on its terms.

        “All a union can do is withhold its services and ostracize people who don't,” said Mr. Darby, who is also a member of the Air Line Pilots Association. “It sounds simple, but obviously, it is effective. And I would say I've seen 200 to 300 of the Comair guys (who) have signed up with Air Inc. to look for other jobs since the strike started.”

        Of those options, only the first two - holding out or seeking other employment - were being considered by the group of pilots the Enquirer interviewed Friday.

        Among them was Kevin Springer, who recently put a “For Sale” sign in the window of his beloved 1999 Chevrolet Silverado pickup.

        “I was planning to make a career out of Comair, and am willing to stick around and see what happens,” said Mr. Springer, 41, a fifth-year regional jet first officer from Loveland. “But it looks like that career might not happen, so Monday morning, those applications are going out the door.”

        Mr. Darby said a striking pilot would not be considered at another airline.

        “There is a big demand for pilots right now, and it might happen here or there, but most companies understand the pilots' position,” Mr. Darby said.

        On Saturday, Comair's pilots union chairman, J.C. Lawson III, said the union leadership at United Airlines had passed a resolution asking the company to give Comair pilots preferential treatment when it came to filling new positions.

        Pilots have been receiving about $1,400 monthly in strike benefits from the national office of the Air Line Pilots Association International since the strike reached the 2-week-old mark.

        “I actually make more now than I did before the strike,” Mr. Hock said. “So I could go a little while.”

        On Saturday, Mr. Lawson said he had received assurances from the national office that those benefits would continue indefinitely.

        Scott Hudgins, 48, an 18-year regional jet captain, said he is preparing to put his Florence home on the market.

        “My daughter keeps telling me that maybe it's time to get a part-time job,” Mr. Hudgins said with a laugh. “But if it comes down to it, I can look at a map with my family and say where do you want to live and get a job in aviation no matter what.”

        All the pilots said they had friends and acquaintances in Comair who are in line to be laid off today. They sympathize but they also blame the company for the 2,000 layoffs that include 1,500 local workers.

        Pilot Alan Cook said he had an interview coming up with AirTran this week.

        “As much as I would love to stay here, it's more important to win this battle - not only for us but for other carriers,” said Mr. Cook, 25, a second-year first officer from Hebron.

        “If this ends up shutting down Comair to win the war, then we've done our best.”


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