Originally created 03/11/01

Airline's troubles persist



Embroiled in the middle of tense labor negotiations and awaiting word to start a countdown toward a possible strike, Delta Air Line's pilots say they are simply looking for job security.

As the waiting game between Delta and its pilots continues to play out, midsize cities such as Augusta watch with great interest.

That's because one of the pilots' demands is for Delta to restrict the growth of its regional jet subsidiaries, which use non-Delta pilots who are paid less than their mainline counterparts.

A deadline for reaching a compromise on this issue - along with several others - could come any day.

Federal mediators have not issued a response to a request from Delta and the pilots union to release them from talks.

Once the National Mediation Board agrees to do that, both sides have 30 days to negotiate or decide to take action. At the end of that cooling-off period, Delta's 10,000 pilots are legally free to strike.

Delta pilots say they want some indication of how much Delta will continue to invest in its regional jet services, and some guarantee its future growth won't come at the expense of downsizing the routes of mainline jets.

"The Delta management team said some time ago that regional jets were the key to expansion and to growing market share," said Capt. Andy Deane, spokesman for the pilots union.

He said that although Delta was anticipating a 3 percent growth in its mainline operation, the company was banking on a 14 percent growth in its regional carriers.

Representatives from the Delta pilots union say they are uneasy about that trend.

"What that did was trigger a concern from all Delta employees about where the emphasis was going to be placed," Capt. Deane said.

In the airline industry, pilots' pay is increased as they build seniority at one company. If they leave to work for another airline, they start at the bottom of the ladder.

That's why Capt. Deane said Delta pilots want the airline to establish a ratio of how much they intend to invest in regional vs. mainline jets.

"What we're maintaining to our company is that what they should do is have mainline airplanes in the 100-seat range rather than do this with the 50-seat planes," he said.

Since Delta pulled out its mainline jets from Augusta Regional Airport in December, passengers have flown only on turboprops or regional jets.

Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Comair now fill the Delta void at Augusta Regional. Both are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Delta. Comair operates two daily departures on 50-seat Canadair jets to Cincinnati. ASA has three 50-seaters and six turboprops making its routes.

"There's 70-seaters (jets) on order that will be delivered to us," said Laura Cotton, an ASA representative. "That's definitely on the horizon, and that's exciting."

The company is adding 52 new Canadair jets to its fleet by 2004, although it does not appear that many of those larger jets will be coming to Augusta Regional in the near future - at least until the passenger demand warrants it.

Some airport officials say the Delta pilots' concerns are something that could take years to settle because Delta's management knows it would be economically unwise to curtail its regional jet investment.

"That would really be a very shortsighted decision thing for Delta to do," said Marcie Wilhelmi, chairwoman of the Augusta Aviation Commission, the airport's governing board.

"It won't do them much good to get a salary increase if their company is going to go down (as a result). I don't see any ending in sight for years."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.