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Delta talks go on autopilot

Airline, pilots aren't meeting as storm clouds gather

After 18 months of unfruitful negotiations, Delta Air Lines and its pilots' union went on autopilot Thursday, and that's where they'll stay until federal mediators either cut them loose from negotiations or send them back to the bargaining table.

"We are extremely disappointed we have not reached a tentative agreement," said Charles S. Giambusso, a Delta pilot, Park City resident and chairman of the Delta Master Executive Council (MEC), a unit of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

"We have negotiated in good faith for the past 18 months and around the clock for the last month in an all-out effort to achieve a new contract that is consistent with leaders in our industry."

At this point, no further negotiations are being held between the airline and its pilots.

If the National Mediation Board decides there's no point in the two sides returning to the bargaining table, it could set the clock ticking toward an eventual strike next month — an action that would be a major blow to Utah air travelers considering that Delta has more flights out of Salt Lake City International Airport than the rest of the airlines combined.

The federal mediation board recessed contract talks Thursday pending a review of Wednesday night's request by negotiators for the airline and the pilots to end negotiations through what is called a "proffer of arbitration."

If the mediation board decides that the talks, first begun in September 1999, are going nowhere and agrees to end the negotiations, it would then likely offer to act as an arbiter with its decisions binding on both sides.

But one or the other could reject that offer and probably will, setting the clock running on a 30-day "cooling off" period which would likely be anything but cool. At the end of the 30 days, the pilots would be free to strike, something the ALPA members have voted to do if an agreement isn't reached.

The mediation board has set no deadline on its ruling, and, historically, the board has let airline contract negotiations go on for years before declaring a stalemate, although no one expects that to happen in this case.

In what ALPA is calling a "show of solidarity" and "frustration with management's failure to negotiate in good faith," so-called "informational" picket lines went up Thursday at airports in nine U.S. cities, including Salt Lake City. Otherwise, the union is cautioning pilots to take no other actions to hamper Delta's operations until a walkout is called.

In a recorded message at ALPA's toll-free telephone number, Giambusso termed the pickets a demonstration of the pilots' "collective disappointment in our management's apparent unwillingness to conclude a timely agreement."

At issue are pay, fringe benefits, flying limits on regional airliners and a wage system at Delta Express, a discount affiliate of Atlanta-based Delta.

ALPA's Council 81, which represents Delta's 754 pilots based in the Salt Lake area, has opened a "strike center" in Salt Lake City but does not want the location made public. David Chapman, a Boeing 737 first officer for Delta, has been named Salt Lake Strike Committee chairman and is directing the center's operations.

In the event of a strike, the center will direct all local union activities, including support and information management for pilots and their families.

"The pilots and our families take the negotiations seriously," said Chapman prior to the mediation board calling for a "blackout" on pilots speaking to the news media. "While we all want to see a negotiated settlement and continue serving the flying public, we must prepare for a strike."

Airline pilots have always walked a tightrope when it comes to job actions. Most Americans have trouble mustering sympathy for men and women who earn up to $250,000 per year.

Delta knows this and insists that its pilots are among the best paid and have the best benefits in the industry.

That, of course, is a matter of opinion and has been debated for the past 18 months. The pilots contend that they gave away too much in 1996 when their last contract was signed, a period when Delta was struggling financially. Now that the red ink has turned to black, they want to be paid back.

Many industry analysts have speculated that the strike threat has no teeth because President Bush will intervene before he allows the nation's third largest airline to shut down, citing the fact that Bush has openly said he will step in if a strike by mechanics working for Northwest Airlines seems imminent.

Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University in Washington D.C., told the national news media last month that "there'll be no strikes this year. That doesn't mean we'll have good labor relations. And it doesn't mean that some unions won't disrupt operations. But there'll be no strikes."

Northwest's mechanics, cleaners and custodians were scheduled to vote today on whether to authorize a strike. Also, United Airlines and its mechanics are deadlocked in contract talks, and American Airlines is holding contract negotiations with its flight attendants and mechanics.