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DELTA pilots ratify new contract

ATLANTA (AP) _ Despite some misgivings, Delta Air Lines pilots have approved a new five-year contract with the carrier that ends the threat of a strike during the summer travel season.

The contract was approved by 70 percent of Delta's roughly 9,800 pilots, the Air Line Pilots Association said Wednesday. A majority was required for passage. More than 97 percent of the pilots voted.

Few union or company officials expected pilots to reject the deal, despite some concerns about new scheduling rules, retirement benefits and a separate pilot wage system at Delta Express, the carrier's lower-cost subsidiary based in Florida.

Charles S. Giambusso, chairman of the pilots' union, called the ratification vote ``a pretty big day'' for the pilots, whose salaries will surpass those paid by United Airlines, the previous highest.

``We put three years of work into something and this is now the culmination of that work,'' Giambusso said.

The five-year contract, with the new pay rates retroactive to May 2000, would provide raises of 24 percent to 39 percent and hikes of up to 63 percent at Delta Express. The contract gives pilots an 11 percent raise in the first year and 4.5 percent annual hikes through 2005.

Under the new contract, a typical pilot's monthly pay would jump more than $1,500, based on the average pilot salary of about $158,500 last year. Delta says the contract will add $2.4 billion to its labor costs.

``This is an important milestone for Delta Air Lines,'' said Leo F. Mullin, Delta chairman and chief executive. ''We have emerged from the long and sometimes difficult months of negotiations with a mutually beneficial agreement.''

In a memo to employees, Mullin said Delta is optimistic about its long-term prospects, even as it struggles with a slump in demand by business travelers. Delta flies 120 million passengers a year, first among U.S. carriers.

Delta and the pilots struck the deal April 22 after 19 months of negotiations, which included pilots declining to accept overtime _ disrupting hundreds of holiday flights _ and a federal court's injunction against the pilots' union.

``I voted for it _ reluctantly,'' said Henry Turner, a pilot from South Carolina. ``I just didn't think we could do any better and it would just be a terrible fight forever.''

The contract approval allows the company to focus on concluding an expensive three-month strike at its Comair regional carrier unit. Comair pilots began voting on a tentative deal Tuesday.

Last week, Delta said it expects to lose $140 million to $160 million in the second quarter as the sagging economy and Comair strike demolish profits. The Atlanta-based airline lost $133 million in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, American Airlines and its flight attendants returned to the bargaining table Wednesday. The flight attendants are counting down to a possible strike as early as June 30. But President Bush is expected to intervene to derail any strike.

Delta shares fell 13 cents to close at $42.15 Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange.
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