Delta Air Lines and the Air Line Pilots Association asked for an offer of arbitration from the National Mediation Board late Wednesday, something the NMB is under no obligation to take on but that represents a "technical step" toward a possible strike on April 1 or soon thereafter.
Atlanta-based Delta, which operates a major "hub" at Salt Lake City International Airport, and ALPA have been in contract talks since September 1999. The pilots are asking for better wages, job security and additional benefits. Delta management says it has offered them the best pay and benefits in the industry.
February 28 was the deadline on which both sides had agreed last November that they would request federal arbitration if no progress had been made in their negotiations.
In a statement issued early Thursday, Karen Miller, spokeswoman for Delta's 10,000 pilots, said no tentative agreement had been reached late Wednesday and a joint request for arbitration by the NMB was made. Both sides were waiting early Thursday for the board to decide whether or not to step in.
Delta operates a major segment of its nationwide "hub and spoke" route system at Salt Lake City International Airport, and a strike would be devastating to Utah air travelers. Delta has 147 daily flights out of Salt Lake, not counting the 104 flights of St. George-based SkyWest, a "Delta Connection" carrier. By comparison, all of the other nine airlines combined operating at Salt Lake International offer only 82 daily flights.
Will it really come to a strike? No one knows at this point. Despite the lengthy and heated contract talks going on between the nation's airlines and their employees right now — Delta is just one of several — industry analysts have been saying that if a strike seemed imminent, President Bush would step in.
Last month, the president said he would intervene if Northwest Airlines' mechanics strike, and if he would do that at Northwest, why not at Delta?
But Craig Mackey, spokesman for Council 81 of ALPA — which has established a strike center in Salt Lake City to serve Delta's 754 pilots based here — said he views that as unlikely.
"I really can't comment on the presidential options — we don't know enough about the president's stance on this — but, historically, presidents haven't invoked that option very often."
Delta's pilots are under a "blackout" right now in that they've been told by the union not to talk to the news media, but that could change at any time, Mackey said.
"All we can do is wait for word, but they are still in formal negotiations, and we're waiting for a decision on whether the (National Mediation Board) will agree to arbitrate."
Mackey said the labor dispute could play out several ways:
Both sides agree to binding arbitration with the NMB. Whatever the board decided, that would be it. Mackey says that's a route not often taken because it's very difficult for both sides to come to terms on issues that they've been arguing for a year and a half.
The mediation board determines that significant progress is not being made in the talks and starts the clock running on the 30-day "cooling off" period during which a strike cannot be called, nor can the pilots legally participate in any activities that would disrupt Delta's operations.
The board decides that progress is being made between the two sides and tells them to just keep going.
Mackey sees the latter as the most likely scenario because the two sides are, in fact, still negotiating, but they're also waiting for word from the mediation board.
Delta said Thursday that it hopes ALPA will be willing to continue negotiating under federal mediation.
"It's important to note that the NMB did not release the parties at this point," said Delta spokesman Thomas J. Slocum. "A 30-day cooling off period has not begun."
But if either party declines NMB arbitration, the countdown begins.
In a recorded message from its national headquarters Thursday, ALPA says it will ask pilots to participate in "informational picketing" at various locations but, beyond that, not to take any actions, such as calling in sick, that would disrupt Delta's operations in any way.
Delta said in a prepared statement Thursday that if the cooling off period is set by the NMB, Delta's operations would continue as scheduled through the 30 days.
Delta claims it has offered its pilots the highest pay in the industry as well as "many other industry-leading contract improvements."