Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Pilots' chief says salaries not main woe

The Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilot union with more than 64,000 members, including nearly 8,000 at Delta Air Lines, held its board of directors meeting last weekend in Hollywood, Fla.

The meeting was at the same time and place as talks between Delta and its pilots.

Heading the conference was two-term ALPA chairman Duane E. Woerth, who told union leaders they could expect companies to continue to pressure them for cuts, even if he thinks labor costs are not the biggest problem facing the industry. Woerth, 54, who has been in his current position since 1998 and serves as a Boeing 747 pilot for Northwest Airlines, talked with Enquirer reporter James Pilcher Monday about the meeting, the state of the industry in general and the Delta talks.

Question: What do you think will happen at Delta Air Lines? Will there be a deal with the pilots there or will the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection?

Answer: I know that they are close to a deal, and I predict that they are going to make one. But I actually think that whether they get a deal or don't get a deal, the decision to declare bankruptcy is already outside the ability of the pilots to prevent. It won't be because of us, or because we were a week late on a deal. It is now all about the company's cash position and the debt being what it is. The board will make that decision based on those factors.

Q: What did you tell other ALPA members in Florida?

A: Probably the overriding message was that while we already know that the industry is going through a tough time, we need to put it in perspective, especially where labor costs fit into the situation. I reminded them that the industry faces a revenue problem more than a cost problem.

We charged $15 billion less for the same amount of travel than we did before 9/11, and fuel costs $15 billion more. That's a $30 billion negative swing. But when fuel comes down, the industry will have a future again ... our message was 'never forget, never quit' - the fundamentals of our industry will be OK in the long term.

Q: But wouldn't you agree that the industry has undergone major fundamental changes with the advent of the Internet and the surge by low-cost carriers?

A: Yes, the distribution transparency has had an effect, but I still say it is more a problem in terms of cost as airlines are still struggling to go to the Internet. And I caution people about what is permanent within this industry - I'm in the unique position of seeing things from all airlines, and there are already signs that people are no longer considering the lowest price as their No. 1 motivator and that people are tired of the cattle car.

We still have a lot of work to do, and a lot of capacity still needs to leave the system, but I'm always hesitant to say what consumers want.

Q: A group of Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) pilots have sued ALPA, claiming that the union is not living up to its responsibility by allowing the contract between Delta and its pilots to limit regional jet flying. Any comment on the lawsuit or on such "scope" clauses in general?

A: I can't comment on the litigation. But there are some facts to talk about at Delta: they have 100 percent more regional jet flying than at United and 80 percent more than Northwest. That they are among the industry leaders in regional jet flying can't be denied. And Delta has refused to respond to our pleas to try and rectify the situation in a merger between Comair and ASA, which would save them a lot of money and create an economy of scale.

Q: As you know, Ohio in general and Cincinnati specifically has gotten a lot of attention from both presidential candidates. Where does ALPA stand on the upcoming election?

A: ALPA has endorsed John Kerry, because he has a clear plan for aviation. All the Bush administration has done is add user fees and unfunded mandates when it comes to airline security, and won't let the Transportation Security Administration use the general fund. Airlines either have to do it themselves or rely on a tax on the consumer.

And you can't talk about transportation policy without talking about energy policy, and the union has watched how it has played out with Big Oil for four years, so we are looking for someone who can get the fear factor out of oil prices and energy policy.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com

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