Comair’s fate hangs in balance as talks with cabin crews resume

 - September 19, 2006, 5:59 AM

Comair and representatives of its some 970 flight attendants returned to the bargaining table last month, days after the Cincinnati-based regional filed for a
reversal of an April bankruptcy court decision that rejected its request to void the group’s labor contract. At issue remained the sides’ failure to agree on a cost-
concession package for the Teamsters-represented group, which threatened to strike if the judge allowed the airline to impose $8.9 million worth of salary and benefits cuts.

The impasse has left in limbo $18.3 million in previously accepted concessions from the airline’s pilots and mechanics because those agreements won’t take effect until the flight attendants accept a predetermined share of the givebacks.

Unfortunately for Comair, Judge Adlai Hardin didn’t think the company tried hard enough to reach common ground with the union, even though he chided both sides for their “Draconian threats.” In Comair’s case, calling a requirement for $8.9 million in cost savings “non-negotiable” apparently proved its fatal error.

“With rare exceptions not present here, true negotiation necessarily requires compromise in each side’s bargaining positions,” wrote Hardin in his original ruling. “When one side presents a non-negotiable, take-it-or-leave-it proposal, negotiation stalls because there is nothing of substance to bargain for when one side must bid against itself.”

In its new motion, filed May 8, Comair claimed that the order overlooks controlling law and facts in the record that would have likely altered the court’s decision. Specifically, it argued that contingency clauses did not restrict Comair from bargaining in good faith, that market rates provide a fair and reasonable basis for determining cost reductions and that the court based on an erroneous legal standard its findings that the Teamsters had good cause to reject Comair’s last proposal.

The judge hadn’t ruled on the new motion by the time Comair and the Teamsters representatives met in Washington on May 11 and 12, tainting the proceedings with more uncertainty. If the judge ruled in favor of Comair, any progress toward a settlement would be for naught because management would gain the right to void the contract, leading to a possible strike. Conversely, if he upheld his original ruling, Comair would either have to convince the flight attendants to accept the $8.9 million in cuts with some sort of incentive, return to the bargaining table with its pilots and mechanics or follow through with its threats of liquidating the company.

One way to sweeten the pot for the flight attendants could involve a successorship clause that would guarantee them some semblance of job security should Delta decide to sell Comair–not an unlikely prospect given that it has already sold one of its regional subsidiaries. Of course, from management’s perspective, such a promise only makes Comair less attractive to potential buyers. If, as many suggest, this entire exercise amounts to dressing up Comair for the auction block more than a serious effort to reign in costs for Delta, however, granting a successorship clause would seem highly counterproductive.

Comair’s flight attendants earn an average base salary of $28,600, according to the company. To reach its goal of $8.9 million in cost savings, it claims that it needs to slash that amount by $4,800 and cut benefits. The union claims that Comair’s offer would result in a $10,800 cut of total compensation.