Editors' Choice: Comair pilots strike

 - May 28, 2008, 7:15 AM

The summer of 2001 saw regional airline executives sweating from more than the heat of the season, as 89 days of uncertainty produced by the pilots of Cincinnati-based Comair threatened to halt the growth momentum of an entire industry. Of course, the strike severely hurt Comair’s parent airline, Delta, to the tune of at least $200 million. But to accede to the demands of Comair’s pilots would have disrupted a cost structure on which regional airlines have prospered for decades. Instead, Delta Connection management chose to risk its Cincinnati subsidiary’s demise rather than set a potentially devastating labor cost precedent.

To Comair’s dismay, the pilots’ resolve proved just as unwavering, evidenced by their willingness to endure the removal of their crew base in Orlando, Fla., and the early retirement of 37 airplanes, as well as the loss of some 200 flying jobs. For ALPA, the Comair case presented an opportunity to remove major airlines’ incentive to outsource flying to their regional affiliates and, in the process, quash conflict-of-interest charges stemming from union-imposed scope restrictions at the regionals.

In the end, after the sides reached a compromise in late June, any sense of unqualified satisfaction with the settlement would prove difficult to encounter. The five-year contract increased minimum salaries for first officers from $16,000 to $21,000 and top pay for full-seniority captains from $69,000 to $85,000. In all, the new contract added $20 million to Comair’s payroll costs during the first year of the agreement. The pilots had originally sought a package worth some $32 million a year.

Although the pilots returned to work with the richest contract in the history of the industry, they failed to achieve ALPA’s ultimate goal–to close the compensation gap between mainline and regional pilots and soothe the lingering resentment many regional pilots still hold for the union’s imposition of scope clauses. Billed by ALPA president Duane Woerth as a crusade to recognize regional pilots as “real airline pilots” rather than de-facto trainees for the major airlines, the Comair negotiations were to be a “watershed event in reshaping how people think about and compensate pilots,” said Woerth.

Although the new contract increased Comair’s cockpit crew cost per passenger from some $7.80 to $10.30 per hour, Delta crew costs remain at least $5 higher. Meanwhile, the new Comair retirement plan still does not approach the value of that offered by Delta, which pays pilots 60 percent of average wages for life, as opposed to the defined-contribution plan to which Comair’s pilots finally agreed.

Nevertheless, some regional airline executives complained that Comair “gave away the store” with its comparatively generous pay concessions. In fact, the settlement set a new standard to which other regional pilot groups would undoubtedly aspire, potentially raising labor costs throughout the industry.