A Double Message For Delta Air Lines

Delta Connection Comair strikes and the mainline airline counts down as both groups seek a fair contract.

Air Line Pilot, May 2001, p.18
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

At Orlando (Fla.) International Airport on March 30, a scene took place that most ALPA veterans thought might be a first: two ALPA pilot groups picketing on the same day, on the same airport property, within a few yards of one another—at some points, even taking turns on each other’s lines.

Late News Bulletin

In an intense effort "on final approach" at the bargaining table, negotiators for the Delta pilot group reached tentative agreement April 22 on a new four-year contract, according to Delta MEC Chairman Capt. Chuck Giambusso. The Delta MEC was to meet April 28 on the new pact, which is then subject to member ratification.

On the arrival ramp, near the ticket counter, Comair pilots, at the end of the first week of a strike that began March 26, held signs that said, "Delta Connection Pilots Deserve a Real Contract." A little more than 100 feet away, Delta pilots were conducting informational picketing to tell passengers, "We are not on strike, yet," and to remind management, lest it somehow forgot with a workforce of 10,000 pilots, that "The clock is ticking."

The Comair pilots saw their bargaining clock run out in late March after nearly 3 years of difficult and frustrating contract negotiations. As expected, the membership overwhelmingly rejected a settlement offer from management, which the Comair Master Executive Council had agreed to present to the pilots with a neutral recommendation (see "The Clock Is Running at Comair," April).

Three days after the Comair strike began, pilot negotiators at Delta rejected a National Mediation Board proffer of arbitration to end Delta’s 19 months of negotiations and launch a 30-day cooling-off period. Unless the Bush Administration intervenes with a Presidential Emergency Board, a move ALPA is trying to head off, the Delta pilots were free to strike at 12:01 a.m. April 29 (after this issue goes to press).

ALPA Director of Representation Seth Rosen says the "negotiating tracks" of the two carriers, with Comair a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta, are parallel. "Both groups are trying to achieve industry-leading contracts from a very profitable company that outperformed all the other major carriers the last five years."

During that period, Delta bought Comair and Atlantic Southeast (whose 4-year contract becomes amendable in 2002). Both Comair and Delta, Rosen adds, are seeking "the industry-leading contracts to which they’re entitled."

Comair strike

ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, joined the Comair picket line in front of Terminal 3 at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on March 27 and walked the Orlando, Fla., picket line on March 29. Capt. Woerth told reporters the strike was drawing attention to the "regional" label that Comair management persists in using to hold down pilots’ pay.

"Our Comair pilots are fighting a management that clings to outmoded and obsolete labels—‘regional pilots’ or ‘commuter pilots’—to try to perpetuate a subordinate class of work provisions,’’ Capt. Woerth said. "These pilots fly some of the world’s most sophisticated passenger aircraft, and they deserve pay and work rules commensurate with the enormous responsibility they bear.’’

Other prominent contract issues for the Comair group include improving scheduling, establishing trip and duty rigs, improving job security, and obtaining a company-paid pension plan.

ALPA’s Board of Directors approved accelerated strike benefits for the Comair pilots, who will be paid $1,400 per month, provided they participate in the strike effort. The press release announcing the Board’s vote pointed out with some irony that the benefit is greater than a new Comair first officer’s starting pay, currently around $14,500 a year.

Public support for the Comair strike has been strong. Flight attendants at the Orlando and Cincinnati bases made up T-shirts, staged impromptu "cheering sections" when strikers changed shifts, and organized "drive-bys"—honking their car horns and shouting messages of encouragement to picketers. Mechanics, ticket agents, and others gave the pilots "thumbs up." Said one observer, "They realize that the pilots are on the spear point and that they’re not far behind."

At least one of the anecdotes from the line appeared to be a case of life imitating art. Editorial cartoons on the Comair strike have been hugely sympathetic to the pilots, zeroing in on the wage issue. At one point during Orlando picketing, a trio of 8-year-old girls approached the strike leader and offered the pilots a handful of change—a real-life equivalent to an editorial cartoon by Bruce Plante that had run in the Chattanooga Times a week or so before.

Other pilots have also rallied to show their encouragement to those at Comair. Pilots from Atlantic Coast, Delta, Northwest, United, US Airways, Piedmont, DHL, and Continental Express have walked the Comair picket lines. When Delta pilots staged informational picketing in Orlando on March 30, the two groups took a turn on each other’s picket line at one point.

Delta negotiations

Delta pilots had hoped to secure a contract that would address the concessions the pilots made in Contract ’96. But management ended negotiations on March 22 and said it would accept the NMB’s proffer of arbitration. After a special MEC meeting on March 29, the pilot group turned down arbitration, setting the 30-day clock. The two sides still remain divided on pay, including rates and working conditions for low-fare component Delta Express, retirement, vacation, scope provisions, and retroactive pay.

"We believe everyone is best served by allowing the collective bargaining process to move forward," says Delta MEC chairman, Capt. Chuck Giambusso. "Our negotiators have worked diligently for the past 19 months to attain an agreement that recognizes the pilot group’s investment in the company almost five years ago. If management shows this same level of commitment to the bargaining process, an agreement can be reached."


The news media were widely predicting that President Bush would intervene with a Presidential Emergency Board at Delta, but ALPA was lobbying hard to let the collective bargaining process work.

The Association currently has six pilot groups in mediation—Air Wisconsin, Champion, Ryan, PSA, Atlas, and Sun Country—and two others (ATA and America West) in negotiations that have grown increasingly contentious (see "Pilot Report," page 35, for a report on informational picketing at America West).

After President Bush appointed a PEB to intervene in the contract dispute between Northwest and its mechanics (who reached a tentative agreement before the PEB was able to issue its recommendations), ALPA feared that such action "foreshadowed a broader policy of limiting airline labor’s self-help alternatives," one that would give managements little incentive to resolve contracts at the bargaining table.

The Association therefore cranked up a grassroots campaign to get members to pressure the Administration away from intervening in either the Comair or the Delta situation.

The campaign, which was still going on at this writing, provides an "action alert" button on the ALPA website allowing members to send a pre-written e-mail message to the White House or to the members’ congressional representatives urging them to resist interfering in the bargaining process. To date, ALPA’s Government Affairs Department reports that more than 8,000 electronic messages have been sent.

Members were also encouraged to send their own personal messages to the President and members of Congress via regular mail.

Displays of unity

Throughout April, both the Delta and the Comair pilot groups were engaged in or planning their own displays of unity to draw attention to their demands.

The Comair pilots held a Family Awareness "sports rally" in Covington, Ky., on April 8, attended by several hundred pilots and family members. A week later, a chicken-and-ribs dinner in Orlando drew more than 300 pilots and other Comair employees and their families.

Delta pilots scheduled "rolling" informational picketing sessions throughout the Delta system and were planning a large turnout at a Delta shareholders’ meeting April 26 in Salt Lake City.

Both pilot groups made clear that they still hope to resolve their differences with management at the table.

The NMB has set "public interest" meetings (i.e., super mediation) for the third week in April to try to reach a settlement at Delta. As this issue goes to press, the NMB was to meet April 25–27 with Comair pilots and management.

Passengers who questioned spokespersons for the Comair pilots at Cincinnati and Orlando about what they could do to help the strike effort were encouraged to "send an e-mail message to Delta management that they need to resolve our issues."

With all the picket signs in evidence sporting the words "Delta" or "Delta Connection," it’s a good bet the folks in Atlanta have already gotten the message.