Tuesday, July 03, 2001

Tough times ahead for Comair

First flights in 99 days cheer workers, travelers

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — Comair flew paying customers for the first time in 99 days on Monday, officially closing the book on the pilot strike that almost did in the region's only locally based passenger airline.

        Company officials and pilots vowed to put the strike behind them. But both sides also said the last three months of turmoil was worth it — if the airline can remake itself better than before.

        “Nobody wins in something like this. ... But sometimes you have to take the long-term perspective,” said Comair president Randy Rademacher after watching the first flight depart and greeting and thanking pas sengers on the day's second flight. “As much as it hurt, we had to do what was right for the company, and what was right for all the employees, including the pilots who had their futures at stake as well.

        “I think we did that, and now, there is a new ener gy building here, like we didn't know what we had until we lost it for awhile.”

        The airline's 1,350 pilots walked out on March 26, grounding the Erlanger-based regional carrier and wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.

        Those same pilots (about 1,200 remained at the end of the strike) ratified a five-year contract on June 22, starting an aggressive ramp-up at the airline that now allows for 90 daily flights to 26 cities.

        The symbolic first flight — Flight 5675 bound for Nashville, Tenn. — pushed away from the gate on time at 7:10 a.m., carrying 19 revenue passengers and 11 “stand-bys,” including several company employees who wanted to be aboard the first flight.

        The Canadair Regional Jet, painted with the Cincinnati skyline — a livery designed by a Comair pilot — lifted off at 7:22 a.m. from Runway 36 Left at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport with a throng of company officials, employees and even pilot union representatives cheering, hugging and clapping.

        Despite a natural feed from parent company Delta Air Lines and an initial fare sale that has discounted prices up to 70 percent, Comair faces a tough road to gain ridership in the coming months.

        Three competitors have added or are planning to add routes to Cincinnati in the coming month, with Mesa starting service to six Comair cities Sunday and Air Canada Regional already operating three flights to Toronto.

        Comair lost $320 million-plus and counting in revenue and costs during the 89-day strike. The airline also laid off 2,400 employees — including 1,600 local workers — and cut its fleet to 82 planes. Officials for both parent Delta and Comair warned several times during the strike that the company's future was at stake if it gave in to the pilots.

        The company plans to bring back 1,300 laid-off workers by the middle of this month, with the rest to be back by the end of the year, and airline officials are negotiating to bring some turboprops and jets back to aid in the start-up.

        “I'm sure everything works out in the end, but it was tough for some people for awhile,” said Jan Maddox, 62, a 14-year Comair customer service agent who had enough seniority to avoid the layoffs. “But you can tell by the atmosphere that we're not going to take this for granted any more, and that could make it better.”

        Even without the missing planes, Comair will add more destinations every five days — Comair's hub in Orlando, Fla. restarts operations on July 22 — until the end of the month, when Comair expects to serve 78 cities.

        The nation's third-largest regional before the strike, Comair hopes to have some service to all its previous 95 destinations by the end of the year.

        “Now it's all about creating the best environment for all our employees, including our pilots, that we can,” Mr. Rademacher said. “This can be done, and while the experts are right in that Comair will never be the same, we intend to make it better.”

        The pilots lost $13 million and counting in total salary. But they also got several concessions in the new deal involving scheduling as well as making themselves the highest-paid pilots in the regional industry.

        J.C. Lawson III, chairman of Comair's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the strike was “absolutely” worth it.

        “The main idea of the whole thing was to compensate Comair pilots to the level of professionalism they have exhibited,” Mr. Lawson said. “And I'm being cautiously optimistic that this new partnership will continue and we'll put the past behind us.”

        Some experts say that whether the strike was really worth it to either side will probably never be known.

        “It was like the pilots were kamikazes with their mission to get mainline wages and compensation, and they scored a hit but didn't sink the aircraft carrier,” said Ray Neidl, airline analyst for the Wall Street firm ABN Amro. “The company was able to hold the line against that, and made it worth it for the entire industry. But the pilots, while they didn't get the main objective, got some things financially as well.”

        For Joe Pagano and other airport concessionaires, the strike was not about worth, but just about when it would be over.

        Mr. Pagano, who runs four restaurants in Concourse C at the airport for Anton Airfood, guessed that closures forced by the strike and the slow return of business would cost his company about $1 million in lost revenue.

        “It definitely wasn't worth it from our perspective, but it wasn't our fight,” said Mr. Pagano, who said most of his staff has been recalled after being laid off. “It seems on the surface that both sides got some of what they wanted, but it definitely had a ripple effect on the rest of us.”

        The same could be said for the passengers scattered throughout Concourse C — most of whom were connecting to Comair from flights on parent company Delta Air Lines, with many confessing to having little or no knowledge of the previous strike.

        But for one passenger, the airline's relaunch didn't come too soon — and the timing of the settlement, at least, was worth the trouble.

        “I'm glad they're back, otherwise I would be sitting around awhile,” said Tom Duncan of Charlotte, N.C., who was waiting at Concourse C for Comair's relaunched flight to his home city. “I was flying US Air and that flight was canceled, so they transferred me over here.”

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