Comair pilots authorize strike as standoff approaches climax

 - December 19, 2006, 11:10 AM

The labor crisis at Comair appeared headed for a climax late last month as the Cincinnati-based airline’s management and pilot representatives prepared to meet for a last-ditch effort to reach a deal. Earlier in the month the pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), voted by a 93-percent margin to authorize a strike if the airline succeeds in convincing a bankruptcy court judge to nullify their contract and allow Comair to impose its own terms.

The vote came days after Judge Adlai Hardin denied the pilots’ demands for access to documents related to US Airways’ bid for Comair parent Delta Air Lines and testimony from Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein. It also came on the same day Delta filed its motion to the court to reject its pilot contract and impose $15.8 million worth of cost-cutting measures.

“We continue to negotiate with Comair management in an effort to reach a consensual agreement,” said J.C. Lawson, the chairman of ALPA’s Comair unit. “However, management appears to have decided that the fate of our contract should rest in the hands of the courts, rather than at the negotiating table with the pilots who have contributed so much [to] the success of this airline.”

The pilots have made an issue of the fact that Delta projected that Comair would turn a profit of $50 million last year. Delta counters that Comair’s labor costs rank among the highest in the industry and that it needs the cuts to complete its bankruptcy restructuring. Last January the pilots had agreed to $17.3 million in cuts over four years, but the agreement never went into effect because Comair couldn’t meet contingencies related to cuts from its flight attendants and mechanics. The other groups subsequently agreed to revised concessions, forcing Comair to come to new terms with the pilots.

Now, as Delta faces a hostile takeover bid from US Airways, the eventual shape and size of the entire Delta Connection network has come into question, rendering the situation all the more insecure for Comair’s employees, many of whom will lose their jobs as a result of a recent decision to transfer much of the airline’s CRJ700 flying to independent Delta Connection carrier SkyWest. Pilot attrition has reached 20 percent this year, forcing Comair to cut its flight-time requirement for new-hire first officers from 1,200 hours to 600 hours.

Nevertheless, Judge Hardin disagreed with ALPA’s assertion that a successful takeover of Delta by US Airways could render further concessions by Comair pilots unnecessary and denied its subpoena for records related to the bid.