Saturday, October 4, 2003

Comair wants to reduce pay

Pilots, attendants asked to reopen contracts

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Erlanger-based regional airline Comair wants its pilot and flight attendant unions to reopen their contracts to negotiate pay cuts, company and union officials have confirmed.

The requests come nearly 21/2 years after the carrier's pilots held an 89-day strike, one of the longest walkouts in recent airline history, which resulted in a contract that made Comair's pilots the highest-paid in the regional-airline industry.

Daily flights: 1,030.
Number of planes: 152.
Total employees: 5,800.
Total pilots: 1,800.
First year pay: $23,000.
Senior pay: (50-seater/70-seater): $95,000/$100,000 annually.
Total flight attendants: 950.
First year pay: $19,500.
Senior pay: $44,820.
Sources: Comair, Air Line Pilots Association, International Brotherhood of Teamsters
The request comes as officials for the wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines acknowledge Comair is "modestly" profitable. Delta, however, has lost more than $2 billion since the bottom dropped out of the industry after the Sept. 11 attacks, and is expected to announce another big quarterly loss later this month.

Neither Comair's 1,800-member pilot union nor its 950-member flight attendant union has decided whether to hold the talks, representatives from both said. Each membership will listen to Comair's initial pitch and then vote on to whether to open up their contracts.

On Friday, company president and chief executive officer Randy Rademacher wrote the company's employees, saying that Comair needed to reduce its costs to remain competitive

The memo, obtained by the Enquirer, said Comair was hoping to secure several new 70-seat aircraft in the next few months.

Comair will be in competition for those planes with several other airlines in the Delta regional network. The planes also could go to new, lower-cost airlines that could be added to that network.

Comair also is trying to finalize delivery of other jets currently on order but not confirmed for next year and even take some other flights away from less efficient carriers. These possibilities could mean a 50 percent expansion in the airline's capacity, the memo said.

"We are responding to an opportunity that we have to further the growth and opportunity for our future," said Comair spokesman Nick Miller.

"Delta has a number of choices for its regional jet flying and Comair wants to make sure that we are the choice. That would be good for our employees, our company and the region as a whole."

Targets unknown

Delta officials would not comment, referring all questions to Comair.

Miller would not say if the company had set a target amount to be cut in either contract, nor would he set a deadline as to when Comair officials hoped to complete negotiations. But the memo said that the decision on the new planes would be made within a month.

Senior Comair regional jet pilots can earn as much as $100,000 annually if they fly 70-seat regional jets, or $95,000 for 50-seaters. A first-year pilot makes $23,000 annually.

The flight attendants signed a five-year contract in July 2002 that called for raises of 44 to 66 percent over the life of the pact or an average of about eight to 10 percent a year.

A first-year flight attendant now makes just under $19,500 annually, while a senior flight attendant averages just under $45,000 a year.

Comair's branch of the Air Line Pilots Association has scheduled a meeting with its members for Thursday. The union and the company have made strong efforts to heal the wounds opened during the spring 2001 strike.

Delta also has asked its mainline pilots to take a pay cut. They are the highest-paid in the domestic airline industry. But that union rejected the company's request to reopen the contract unless several key points were made, and no new efforts have been forthcoming from Delta management.

The vice chairman of Comair's pilot union, Cory Tennen, a Cincinnati-based regional jet captain, said the company has not made a specific proposal and that the union still has to do its own analysis of the situation before agreeing to talks.

That would include acquiring specific financial data from the company, Tennen said. That requirement was also made by the flight attendants, according to union trustee Ken Barnes of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Union wants details

During the strike, which cost Delta and Comair an estimated $750 million in lost revenue and costs, Comair repeatedly refused to provide such data.

"We are still looking at it and we have to do our own analysis," said Tennen, who led negotiations during the strike. "This time, the money they are or aren't making is a lot more relevant so we need to see that on paper."

Miller said the company was working with the union on the request, but would not provide specifics, only to say that Comair is "modestly" profitable. During the strike, Comair repeatedly said that its financial results were reflected in the overall results released by parent Delta and would not provide specifics.

"This is not about Comair losing money, it's about Delta holding this over their head and saying if they want to continue to grow, they have to cut costs among the workgroups," Barnes said. "But we'll wait and see what the flight attendants want to do."


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