The Clock Is Running at Comair

Air Line Pilot, April 2001, p. 30
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

Greater Cincinnati is a city of contrasts: five-star French restaurants and corner chili parlors; home of the Museum of Brewing Arts and of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. It’s also home to an airline that grew from a modest little father-and-son operation flying Piper Navajos for short hops between Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, and Canton–Akron in the mid-1970s to a carrier that its current pilots call "the most profitable on the planet."

The city’s German roots give it a strong work ethic, an even stronger local pride, and a hard-headed stubbornness. And that might provide a clue to the mindset of the approximately 1,400 pilots who fly for Comair, that Cincinnati-based carrier. They have been in negotiations for nearly 3 years on a new contract. And, as this issue goes to press, they may well be on strike. How it plays out will more than likely serve to redefine a significant segment of the airline industry.

Many of the pilots who fly for Comair—about 1,000 of those based in Cincinnati and the rest in Orlando—talk with conviction about their desire to make it a "career airline." Many of them paid $10,000 or more for their own initial training, landing jobs with annual starting pay in the ballpark of $11,000—hardly glamorous wages. They talk with pride about the closeness of the pilot group, and how far the airline has come because of their efforts.

And the pilots’ frustration is evident in negotiations with the management of their immensely profitable employer, which Delta Air Lines bought in late 1999 for more than $1.8 billion.

Capt. Steve Schoch, quiet and intense, chairs the pilots’ Strike Committee. "Somebody once told me, ‘Don’t worry too much about the pilot group being unified,’" Capt. Schoch smiles. "Management will generally have done the job for you."

The pilots express frustration that management’s offers have not adequately addressed the issues that the pilots highlighted in their survey responses to their Negotiating Committee, which Capt. Cory Tennen heads. Among those issues are the pilots’ demands for a company-paid pension plan, a minimum value day, trip and duty rigs, scheduling improvements, improvements in vacation and sick leave accrual—as one pilot put it, "all those other small improvements that contribute to quality of life." They also want full retroactivity for the last 3 years of negotiations.

The contract bargaining entered federal mediation in July 1999. The pilot negotiators rejected a proffer of arbitration from the National Mediation Board on February 22 of this year, and the NMB released the two sides from negotiations, counting down to a strike deadline of 12:01 a.m., March 26.

Management’s settlement offer, which the pilots were voting on at this writing, would, the management claimed, put Comair’s pilots at or near the top of regional airline industry. And therein lies the rub. Pilots have resisted that definition by management, pointing to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ traditional definition of "major airline"—i.e., carriers with annual operating revenues of more than $1 billion, and pointing out that Comair has almost reached that hurdle within the last year. (The BTS, interestingly enough, is beginning to drop the labels of "major," "national" and "regional" in favor of generic groupings.)

The pilots argue that they should be compared with carriers like Alaska and Southwest. Even Alaska doesn’t fly some of the long routes that Comair’s small jets fly, they point out. With a route system spanning Bangor to Mexico City and Las Vegas to Nassau, "at some point the whole ‘regional’ argument gets to be a bad joke," observes Capt. Max Roberts, a member of the Comair pilots’ Communications Committee. From Cincinnati and Orlando hubs, the carrier provides scheduled service to 33 states, Canada, the Bahamas, and Mexico.

The Comair Master Executive Council, under its agreement with the NMB, agreed to present the terms of the settlement offer to pilots at a series of road shows in Cincinnati and Orlando before submitting it to a telephone ballot by the pilots (results were to have been announced March 19). The MEC, pursuant to its agreement with the NMB, took a "neutral" position on the offer. But even before the MEC announced its position, the rank and file made their own feelings known, piling up, in front of the chief pilot’s door, stacks of the settlement offer scrawled with red ink: "NO."

Despite those sentiments, the MEC went ahead with 10 roadshows. At each, they took pains to present the settlement offer in an unbiased manner, both because they agreed to and because they know how much is at stake. Said Capt. Schoch: "We are trying to give the pilots as much information as we can. Pilots need to know all the facts and issues that should be considered as they weigh whether to go out on strike."

Management, which has accused union representatives of being out of touch with the wishes of the pilot group, mailed a series of full-color brochures to each pilot’s home comparing the wage and work rule proposals to those of regional carriers. The mailings "only served to galvanize opposition" to the settlement, according to the pilots.

So while the roadshows and the balloting were going forward, so, steadily and methodically, were the efforts of the Comair pilots’ Strike Committee.

The Comair pilots sought help from the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council, which represents other unionized workers in the area and which pledged its support to the contract efforts of both the Comair and the Delta pilots.

Pilot Strike Centers at Cincinnati and Orlando were equipped with phone banks, computer equipment, and staff support, underwritten by an initial $2 million grant from ALPA’s Major Contingency Fund. The ALPA Executive Council voted to recommend that the union’s Board of Directors shorten to 14 days the normal 35-day waiting period for the pilots to receive strike benefits.

The volunteer effort is picking up steam as well. Finding willing recruits at smaller carriers such as Comair is often hampered by unforgiving schedules. "Many of the pilots fly 90, 95, 100 hours of hard time a month," said Capt. Kevin McGreevy, the MEC’s secretary/treasurer. Many of the pilots have only about 10 days off to spread around to family obligations and strike preparation efforts, with not a lot of time left for much of anything else.

But as the clock ticked down to the end of the 30-day cooling-off period, preparations at the pilot group’s Cincinnati and Orlando Strike Centers picked up noticeably.

"As the level of tension rises," observed Capt. Bob Luther of the Family Awareness Committee, "so does the level of volunteers"—in both their commitment and their numbers.

Capt. Gladys Miller chairs the pilots’ Family Awareness network, which encompasses approximately 80 group leaders and is loosely patterned after Northwest pilots’ Family Awareness effort. The Comair group has produced a video and printed materials, which have been very effective in developing and maintaining pilot unity.

No one doubts the pilot group’s commitment. Capt. McGreevy, who has worked for five different airlines in the course of his career, says the Comair pilots are "very motivated, very passionate.… I would match their unity with that of any other pilot group in the country."

At this writing, they’re planning to display that commitment at a family awareness rally March 19, the day the balloting results are announced.

And should their strike go forward on March 26, the pilots will tell you, they’ve already experienced the cold wake-up call of a standoff with management and how a union pulls together to respond.

At this writing, the pilots were still under an injunction issued by the U.S. District Court in December 1999, prohibiting them from carrying out any disruptions to Comair’s operations. This injunction will not, of course, bar Comair pilots from lawfully striking. Adding to the difficulties, five Comair pilots have been taken hostage by management, and grievances are pending. Comair management has shown a consistent willingness to abuse the litigation process to try to press an unfair advantage in the contract dispute. Management has recently acknowledged, for example, that it inappropriately accused several Comair pilots of violating the Court order without first bothering to carefully examine the facts before leveling such serious charges.

Gary Baumgardner, a 9½-year jet captain, was one of the early "hostages," fired 2 weeks before Christmas for allegedly writing up too many maintenance items for the month of October 2000.

Concerned that Capt. Baumgardner wouldn’t be able to provide much of a Christmas for his two kids, ages 1½ and 3, the Comair pilots acted. Anonymously, gift certificates for toys, games, and other merchandise began showing up in his mailbox—a total of $700 worth. Management distributed gift certificates for hams to their employees at Christmas that year. The fired pilot and his family ended up with enough of the certificates to feed them ham dinners through next Easter.

The lesson wasn’t lost on Capt. Baumgardner. "If I ever had any doubts that these people are my family, I don’t now."