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Comair pilots walk out
March 26, 2001: 12:30 p.m. ET

Bush won't act to end strike that grounds half of Delta Connection flights
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Pilots at Delta Air Lines subsidiary Comair Inc. and management of the feeder airline blamed each other for a strike that started there early Monday, and with President Bush saying he won't intervene in the dispute there is no quick end to the strike on the horizon.

Comair flies about half the feeder flights under the Delta Connection name. The strike most directly hits operations at Delta's hubs in Cincinnati and Orlando, Fla. It normally handles about 25,000 passengers a day. Other companies not affected by the strike fly the Delta Connection flights to and from the airline's hubs in Atlanta, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

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graphicPilots at Delta Air Lines subsidiary Comair Inc. went on strike Monday, shutting the airline down. CNN's Patty Davis reports.
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Bush, who has already ordered the end of one airline strike this month, said Monday he is concerned about the impact of any airline strike on the economy, but said the two sides must settle the dispute themselves.

The president has the power to order strikers in the airline or railroad industries back to work for 60 days while a Presidential Emergency Board studies the dispute. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters traveling with Bush that he would need the National Mediation Board, which oversees labor relations in those sectors, to declare that the strike would cause "substantially harm the economy" before he could act.

The NMB did recommend that Bush name a PEB to stop a mechanics strike at Northwest Airline that started March 12, and his order ended the strike almost as soon as it started.

graphicComair, a wholly owned unit of Delta, uses smaller regional jets for 800 flights a day to 95 cities. It handles about 7 percent of Delta's passengers overall, last year carrying about 8 million passengers.

The dispute is likely to hit Delta beyond its direct impact on feeder flights. Delta also faces the possibility of a walkout by its own pilots, who authorized a strike earlier this month and could be on the picket lines themselves in just over 30 days.

Customer concerns over labor disruptions have cut bookings and forced the airline to warn earlier this month it will lose money this quarter.

Jim Higgins, analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, said a strike at Comair will hurt bookings at Delta, as passengers not even using the feeder airline try to avoid potential problems. "If you have Comair pilots on picket line, it heightens public perception that you can't count on Delta," Higgins said Friday, before the walkout began.

Two sides far apart, blame each other

The pilots union said they have not had a raise in three years, and that their starting salary is only $14,562 a year and would increase to only $18,810 per year under management's offer.

Management said the company's offer would have given pilots a company-funded retirement program and would have increased the pay of top-scale pilots to $96,000 from $66,000.

graphic"We also believe a new contract must allow Comair to remain competitive, ensure customer comfort and convenience, and provide all employees, including our pilots, with the job security that only a healthy company can provide," said a company statement before the start of the strike.

Comair President Randy Rademacher told CNN he believes the airline has offered the pilots a good contract.

"The company has put forward a proposal that would pay our pilots more money to fly regional airplanes, to fly 50-seat equipment, than anyone else in the country," Rademacher said. "And we were very hopeful that a proposal like that would be able to move us toward an agreement."

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The union leadership said that management walked away from the table Sunday, refusing to address rank-and-file concerns that led them to vote 1,090 to 6 to reject management's offer earlier this month.

"They walked away with several hours left -- plenty of time if they would just get real -- before the strike deadline," said a statement from the Air Line Pilots Association. "Following the Comair pilots' overwhelming rejection of management's settlement offer, we returned to Washington, D.C., and presented to management our requirements for change. Comair management refused to respond to those offers, and made no effort to respond all weekend. With so much at stake, management's abandoning of the negotiating process is outrageous."

The airline blamed the pilots, though, saying the union was unwilling to negotiate.

"Comair negotiators were told early this morning by the union leadership that the union was unwilling to compromise on any of the major issues of the contract," said an airline statement Sunday.

Passengers worried about options

Passengers expressed concern Sunday about their future travel plans due to the strike.

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."

Comair cancelled about 100 flights on Sunday and said it was able to rebook about 85 percent of those passengers on other flights, including some on Delta flights. Officials from Comair and Delta could not give statistics about passengers hit by the strike Monday.

Despite the strike, shares of Delta (DAL: Research, Estimates) gained $1.48 cents to $39.45 in trading Monday.

-- from staff and wire reports graphic