Comair pilots walk off the job after contract talks fail

Monday, March 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HEBRON, Ky. (AP) _ Comair pilots walked off the job early Monday after contract talks with the airline broke off, and union officials said the pilots were prepared to continue the strike for as long as necessary.

``I think it's fair to say that there was not a single Comair pilot that wanted this to happen, but we have prepared for this mentally and financially and we are together,'' union spokesman Max Roberts said shortly after the strike began at 12:01 a.m.

Comair, the nation's second-largest regional airline, serves 95 cities in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas and carries more than 8 million passengers annually.

Comair's 1,350 pilots are seeking a company-funded retirement plan, more rest time between flights, higher pay and the right to be paid for all hours they are on the job, not just actual flying hours.

Twenty uniformed pilots staged the first session of picketing on the sidewalk outside the airline's terminal at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where the airline is based.

They marched with military precision from the parking lot to the sidewalk, carrying signs that read: ``Pilots on Strike,'' and ``Families Deserve a Fair Contract.''

Pilots and their families, who had gathered at an airport hotel Sunday night, cheered, clapped and whistled as the strike announcement was made.

James C. Lawson, chairman of the Comair pilots' division of the Air Line Pilots Association, told the crowd that the union's executive council voted unanimously to recommend a strike.

Lawson said Comair pilots want the same rights and dignity as other airline pilots.

``It has been a ruse and a management ploy to classify you as regional pilots,'' he said. ``You are airline pilots.''

Comair's president said he was disappointed by the union's decision.

``We went to Washington, D.C. this weekend to get an agreement and are disappointed that we couldn't work together to avert a strike,'' Randy Rademacher said in a statement. ``We're sorry for any inconvenience to our customers, our employees, our pilots and their families.''

The airline, which also flies under the name Delta Connection, announced Sunday that it would cancel its Monday flights in preparation for the strike.

Comair spokeswoman Meghan Glynn said negotiators were told by union leaders Sunday that they were unwilling to compromise on the major issues of pay, retirement and work rules.

Glynn also said she was told that the union had not offered a counterproposal to the airline's latest offer made earlier this month. But Roberts said the airline had not responded to a proposal that the union presented Friday during federally mediated negotiations in Washington, D.C.

Both sides said they were ready and willing to negotiate.

Comair, which also has a hub in Orlando, Fla., is trying to provide customers with alternative transportation on its parent, Delta Air Lines, or other airlines.

Deborah Goverski of Augusta, Ga., was scheduled to return home Sunday on Comair. She said she was told her flight was not canceled, but she was worried about a trip later this month to Florida.

``I think Comair is the only connection out of Augusta, so I guess I'll take a bus,'' she said. ``I just hope they settle this soon.''

Paula Goschke, whose husband, Kent, is a Comair pilot, also hopes for a quick settlement.

``We are all a little nervous, but we've been waiting a long time for a contract and we are determined to get a fair one,'' she said.

The airline said a contract offer that pilots rejected March 19 would have given the pilots a company-funded retirement program and would have increased the pay of top-scale pilots from $66,000 to $96,000.

But only about 40 Comair pilots who have at least 18 years of experience would have been eligible for that top pay, union leaders said.

Comair was founded in 1977, and this is the first strike by its pilots.