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Delta Air Lines pilots have filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta-based carrier to stop it from transferring large jet operations to its connector carriers.

The pilots became angered after Atlanta-based Atlantic Southeast Airlines announced last month that it would use 88-seat jet aircraft for the first time. ASA, which couldn't be reached for comment, typically takes Delta passengers to smaller cities on propeller planes."We felt it was necessary to protect ourselves, our job security and our working conditions by filing a lawsuit," said Mike Kelly, vice chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta. The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles federal district court.

The union, which represents Delta's 8,500 pilots, said it believes Delta is going to relinquish some of its shorter-haul routes and give them to ASA. That's a move analysts have anticipated Delta to make as part of its attempt to shave $2 billion, or 15 percent, off its annual costs by 1997. ASA's operating costs are lower than Delta's.

Such a transfer would cost Delta pilots and other employees jobs, said Karen McGuffey, a spokeswoman for ALPA.

The union said its current pilots contract states that Delta would not allow carriers it has control over to fly planes with more than 70 seats. "We feel Delta has significant control over ASA," Kelly said, noting that Delta owns about 22 percent of ASA.

Delta spokesman Bill Berry said the ALPA lawsuit has no merit. "Delta feels very confident that the contract that it has with its pilots is in no way violated," Berry said. "We will simply present our side before the courts and let them resolve this matter."

He said Delta doesn't believe 22 percent ownership of ASA constitutes control.

Meanwhile, Thursday, Delta said it is cutting 60 daily flights from Dallas-Fort Worth in a further move to eliminate unprofitable routes.

The latest realignment of Delta's domestic flight system comes just days after the airline, which was losing money for most of this decade, announced record profits for the April-June quarter. The airline hinted then that further cost cutting would be necessary to continue profitability.

Delta's hubs in Atlanta and Cincinnati will gain some flights in the realignment. A few international routes are being eliminated.

Last month, ASA said it intends to fly its first four BAe 146-200 jets out of Atlanta Dec. 1, with a fifth on Feb. 1, but didn't say what routes it will use. ASA has an option to lease 15 more.

The move comes in the midst of crucial negotiations between Delta and its pilots over a new contract. Delta wants to wrest $340 million a year from pilots in work rule and wage/benefit concessions. The pilots say they want something in return - namely, a board seat, equity in the company and job security.

Some analysts said the negotiating climate might be hurt by the lawsuit. But David Stamey, a consultant for Avitas in Reston, Va., termed the union move "pre-emptive and predictable."

"Delta has repeatedly said it's going to de-emphasize higher-cost short-haul flying," Stamey said.

Similarly, he said, American Airlines, recently upset its pilots by pulling out of Raleigh/Durham and giving many of its routes to Midway Airlines.