Tuesday, July 03, 2001

For pilots, strike was for respect

Cost high, but worth it, two say

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Gus Kakalow and Ted Tracy don't want your sympathy.

        The two Comair pilots lost a combined $18,000 in wages while on strike for 89 days. Mr. Kakalow's wife and three children left him for a week because the stress was too great. Mr. Tracy couldn't visit his 8-year-old daughter in Chicago because finances were too tight.

        But what they want isn't pity — it's respect.

        And now that Comair is back in the air, both men say that if they get that from the public, their fellow pilots, and, most im portant, their company, the last three months will have been worth it.

        “This is a relationship that pretty much has always been adversarial,” says Mr. Tracy, 40, who has been with Comair for 12 years and lives in West Chester, right around the corner from where he grew up. “There was the financial cost of the whole thing, to be sure. But the other side of that is the respect we gained for ourselves.”

        The two men don't know each other and have different backgrounds and goals.

        Mr. Tracy is probably going to stay with Comair for the rest of his flying career (he rejoins the airline for training on July 10). Mr. Kakalow, who is to start his retraining today, joined the airline in 1999 and wants to move on to a major carrier.

        Both men, along with the rest of the company's 1,200 pilots, had been under a gag order from their union, which had threatened fines for speaking to reporters. Both agreed to be interviewed about what the strike cost them and

        what they gained from it following the ratification vote of June 22 that ended the 89-day strike.

        And despite their differences, both agree that the final cost/benefit analysis of the past three months will come down to that commodity that won't show up on any balance sheet.

        “We needed to stand up for ourselves and let the company and everyone else know that this was no longer acceptable,” says Mr. Kakalow, a 35-year-old Connecticut native who now lives in Amelia with his wife and three children. “This contract was not about money, this contract was about respect.”

Making do
               During his first year at Comair, Gus Kakalow made less than $15,000. Before joining the airline, he and wife, Sonia, racked up $80,000 worth of credit-card debt paying for flight time and training just to get to this point.

        He has no regrets, however, and feels fortunate to have made it this far.

        “I got a late start toward this and made some mistakes before coming to this decision,” says Mr. Kakalow, a former college baseball player who dropped out after blowing his scholarship money “on a girl.”

        At the time he signed on with Comair, the company was requiring would-be pilots to pay for their own training at a cost of approximately $11,000, a practice the company has since discontinued.

        That was piled onto the initial debt already in his wife's name.

        “She really loved me, I guess, or she was crazy,” he says of the financial charges, many of which were made before the couple married.

        Mrs. Kakalow's earnings as a full-time registered nurse helped meet the monthly minimum payments.

        But Mr. Kakalow was immediately put on reserve duty when he finished training at Comair, meaning he had no set schedule. That made it impossible for his wife to work another full-time job and find nightly child care (the family now includes 6-month-old Reagan, 2-year-old Austin and 12-year-old Devan, his wife's child from a previous relationship).

        “We knew what we were getting into when Gus became an airline pilot, but that first year was ridiculous the way he would be on duty for 14 hours and fly maybe two,” says his wife, 32. “I know he's going to be out of the house, and we've got to pay our dues. But if he's going to be away, I want him to be productive.”

        The bills began mounting.

        At one point, the family went on food stamps and welfare, with Mrs. Kakalow looking for any cost-cutting possibilities, including signing up with Procter & Gamble's diaper testing panel to receive free baby products.

        Eventually, things got so bad that, last August, the couple declared bankruptcy to clear some of the debt. The thinking was that if he eventually achieved his goal of flying for a major airline, and received a six-figure income, they could easily recover.

        “We're not proud of it, but it was either file or not eat,” she says. “At the time, we still had an A1 credit rating because we had kept up with the payments. But we were paying more than $1,000 a month in just interest, and I was pregnant with Reagan. The funny thing is that just before we filed for Chapter 7, companies were still sending us more cards.”

"Return on investment'
               Then the storm clouds of the possible strike started to form, stressing finances even further while adding even more stress to the relationship.

        And when the strike began, it became almost too much, even for a couple used to adversity. The little spats normal in every marriage became major battles as the strike wore on.

        “At one point I told him that I'm not Comair and don't blame me for the stupid contract,” his wife now says. “I understand he just needed someone to take it out on, but it didn't help matters.”

        So in early June, the week of the final round of negotiations that resulted in the new contract, she took the three kids back to her parents.

        “We needed a vacation from each other, but in the heat of the moment, lawyers were mentioned,” he says. “We both knew we'd be back, but it wasn't fun.”

        The couple reunited two weeks ago, but the strike has taken a financial toll as well. Mr. Kakalow says he lost about $5,000 in wages during the strike, while that $11,000 loan has now ballooned to $20,000 because of interest and late fees.

        As a second-year first officer, he made a little less than $28,000 annually before the new contract, and he says the new deal gives him an immediate $6,000 a year raise.

        He says it will take about 12 months for him to recover what he lost in the strike, but says the money isn't that important — he's pleased with new scheduling rules and pay requirements that will keep him productive and home more.

        Mr. Kakalow wouldn't say which way he voted on the deal — the ratification vote was 733 in favor to 408 against — but said that “it was something I couldn't live without. It could have been better, but I'm grateful it's there.

        “I spent $13,500 to get this job, much less the money and time I spent getting to that point,” he says. “I was going to stick it out here, no matter how bad it got, because I made an investment here and I need to get a return on that investment.

        “This contract, mentally and financially, is a step in that direction.”

Paying dues
               While Gus Kakalow and Ted Tracy shared the same early love of flying, Mr. Tracy took a much quicker route into the cockpit.

        A self-described “ramp rat,” Ted would do anything he could — mow lawns and doing other odd jobs — to make enough for a lesson here or there at the Hamilton airport.

        He earned a private pilot license before he graduated high school, eventually getting his degree and flying odd jobs as a “jack-of-all-trades.”

        Mr. Tracy then landed a position flying canceled checks, a job that required him to show up at 7:30 p.m. and get home at 8 a.m., but that paid $30,000 a year.

        “At the time, I felt like I was rich,” he says.

        But he knew where the real money and a relatively normal lifestyle lay — flying people, not slips of paper.

        So on his way to Louisville, where he would fly regularly, Mr. Tracy would stop by the Erlanger offices of Comair, which had established itself as a solid commuter carrier for Greater Cincinnati.

        “Family is important to me, so I wanted to stay close and knew I couldn't just sign on with Delta,” he says. “So I would bang on Comair's door every time I was driving by, and they hired me on.”

        His salary went immediately back to $14,000 a year, working as a first officer — meaning he sometimes doubled as flight attendant and baggage handler.

        Working his way through the system and keeping up with his training, he became a regional jet captain four years ago.

        “The relationship between management and the pilots has always had peaks and valleys, but most of the pilots who've been there awhile are now skeptical,” he says. “I wanted to stay in the area, so I was willing to put up with some of it. Now, we want to be shown with actions rather than words.”

"A better place to work'
               When the strike began, things were nowhere near as tight financially for Mr. Tracy as for the Kakalows, because he entered the strike debt free and says he had been saving for two years.

        But there were sacrifices, which brought the financial reality home.

        Before the strike, Mr. Tracy would visit his 8-year-old daughter, Kaitlynn, in Chicago at least twice a month (he was divorced four years ago), but hasn't seen her since March, saying he couldn't afford the trips.

        The child support that was formerly deducted out of his check now had to be paid out of his personal savings, and writing out the check himself “made this whole thing very real,” he says.

        Like his younger counterpart, Mr. Tracy would not answer when asked how he voted on the contract, saying “right now, the feeling amongst the pilot group is that it is not important how we individually voted. Now we have to rejoin the company as a team.”

        Before the strike, Mr. Tracy made about $63,0000 annually as a 12-year regional jet captain. The contract gives him an immediate $12,000 a year raise.

        He estimates he lost about $13,000 during the strike, saying it would take between 20 and 24 months to make up the difference — “after taxes, of course.”

        But he also says that this contract wasn't just about money.

        “For me, this was making Comair a better place to work,” he says. “It cost me money and some time with my daughter, sure, but if that happens, we'll all look back and say it was worth it.”


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