Wednesday, December 22, 1999

Comair pilots ordered to fly

Union says renegades are to blame

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Saying it “might get some members of the public home for Christmas,” a federal judge ordered Comair pilots Tuesday to quit causing disruptions that have grounded up to 972 flights and more than 23,000 passengers since Dec. 1.

        Comair requested the court order after five more days of unusually high numbers of flights being canceled for mechanical reasons. The Erlanger-based carrier averages about 14 canceled flights a day. There was an average of 79 of the carrier's 750 daily flights canceled from Dec. 13 (when the airline started to notice the increase) until Tuesday.

        U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman said the cancellations and disruptions cannot be allowed to continue into the holiday weekend. He also scolded company and union lawyers for not considering passengers.

        “Nobody is thinking about them, you're all so bogged down in negotiations,” he said. “You're using the public as pawns in this chess game. ... We need to act quickly because the heavy travel season is upon us.”

        The injunction means that the Air Line Pilots Association can be held in contempt of court if its member pilots take unnecessary actions to cancel Comair flights. The union for American Airlines' pilots was fined $45 million last spring after an apparent sickout crippled the carrier and violated a similar court order.

        In this case, Comair accuses pilots — frustrated with the progress of contract negotiations continuing since mid-1998 — of an organized effort to delay and cancel flights by finding minor mechanical problems with Comair's regional jets and turboprops.

        For safety reasons, pilots have the right and the responsibility under federal law not to fly the planes until the problems are fixed. The airline says problems have included broken lights, chafed paint and torn seat cushions, items that do not affect the airworthiness of the planes and typically do not cancel flights.

        Early last week, the carrier noticed high numbers of these mechanical “write-ups.” With so many at once, maintenance teams couldn't keep up, and flights were canceled.

        The cancellations were made public Dec. 15, with the airline initially saying about 270 flights were canceled and $900,000 of revenue was lost Dec. 13 to 15. A lawsuit filed Thursday — which seeks a jury trial to grant a permanent injunction and monetary damages — increased that number to 402 canceled flights from Dec. 13 to 15.

        Airline officials said operations returned to normal Thursday, with fewer than 10 flights canceled. Court papers filed Tuesday show that 83 flights were canceled Thursday and 73 flights were canceled Friday. Another 151 were grounded over the weekend.

        Don Osmundson, Comair's vice president of flight operations, testified in the four-hour hearing Tuesday that pilots were told by their local chairman, Dick de Lagarde, to do “whatever it takes” to pressure the company to meet union bargaining demands.

        He testified the union leader told pilots to disrupt the airline's operations by writing up all mechanical defects, taxiing unusually slowly and refusing to work overtime.

        Mr. Osmundson said the union representative once told him that he'd rather “destroy the company than take something less than they felt they deserved.”

        Paul Lackie, a regional jet captain and local pilots union spokesman, declined comment on the ruling late Tuesday. Mr. de Lagarde, who retired from the company Monday, could not be reached.

        Union lawyers and officials, however, told the judge that the union leader and others disrupting flights are “renegades” and that the union doesn't authorize or condone their actions. The union, therefore, shouldn't be held responsible for what they do.

        Besides, the Virginia-based union has told Comair pilots to stop the unnecessary write-ups and other disruptions to the airline.

        “We've done everything we could do to stop what is going on at Comair,” said Duane Woerth, ALPA president and Northwest Airlines captain.

        However, citing the public's interest and the union's responsibility to control its members, the judge disagreed.

        “With the power of the court behind it, this action will stop,” he said.


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