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Delta pilots picket for better pay in wake of record airline profits

SALT LAKE CITY — To some travelers at Salt Lake City International Airport Friday, the sight of about 50 white shirt-clad pilots standing at attention in silent formation was startling.

“I thought they were striking,” said traveler Eric Slayman.

Upon learning that the pilots were conducting informational picketing to raise awareness of ongoing labor negotiations, Slayman said he was surprised.

“I like that approach. It’s impactful,” he said. He snapped a photo of the men standing outside the Delta terminal that he planned to post on Instagram.

He said he was relieved, however, that flights were not being affected by the picketing demonstration.

Another traveler, Carol Su — who was visiting Utah from Taiwan — said she also appreciated the way the pilots were bringing attention to their cause without negatively impacting air travel.

“They were very calm and seemed to have a purpose,” she said. “It was a very reasonable way to get their point across.”

On Friday, off-duty Delta Air Line pilots conducted the picketing at eight Delta bases across the country to raise awareness about continuing labor talks between Delta management and the Air Line Pilots Association. The demonstrations took place in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York-LaGuardia, Seattle and Salt Lake City.

The pilots said they hoped to increase the sense of urgency in the negotiations that have been ongoing for 16 months, according to union spokesman and Delta Airlines Capt. Mike Dunn.

“Last year, the company posted a $6 billion profit,” he said. “This year, the forecasts are over $10 billion.”

He said the airline has seen its fortunes rise dramatically since its “darkest days” in bankruptcy in 2005. At the time, the pilots voluntarily took a 50 percent pay cut and had their retirement benefits virtually eliminated, according to Dunn.

Since then, he noted that the company has become among the most profitable airlines in the world, rewarding its executives and other airline workers with substantial pay hikes, along with shareholders who also received considerable dividends. Now the pilots would like to share in financial windfall, he said.

“All Delta non-pilot employees are back to their pre-bankruptcy compensation levels,” Dunn said. “The pilots are not.”

While the pilots’ union declined to state specific pay demands or salary information, the median annual wage for airline and commercial pilots was $102,520 in May 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The two sides have been in mediation for nearly a year and a half, he said, with no concrete resolutions on the immediate horizon.

“It is past time for Delta management and the board of directors to recognize the rising market for pilots and bring these negotiations to a timely conclusion,” the union said in a prepared statement.

Dunn noted that during the first quarter of this year, Delta recorded a historic pre-tax income of $1.56 billion — nearly triple the amount from the first quarter of 2015, the previous historic high for the airline.

The goal of the union is to achieve negotiated contractual changes that recognize pilot sacrifices and contributions to Delta’s unprecedented success, he said.

“We know the company is anxious to get a deal done,” he said. “The pilots are ready to get a deal done. We’re obviously not trying to get back everything we lost, but we’re due our fair share of the company’s newfound success.”

In response to the protest, Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant issued a statement advising the traveling public that the picketing resulted in no impact to Delta’s operations.

Delta and (the pilots’ union) are making progress at the negotiations table, he said.

“The parties have been meeting regularly in direct negotiations and with mediators from the National Mediation Board, and there is an aggressive schedule planned with the mediators through June and July,” Durrant said.

“But while we’re making steady progress, there are still tough issues to resolve in order to reach an agreement,” said Capt. Steve Dickson, Delta senior vice president of flight operations. “Our sleeves are rolled up, and I’m encouraged that we will be able to bring this process to a successful conclusion.”

Reaching a timely agreement in the volatile airline industry is in the best interests of all Delta stakeholders and will position the company for long-term growth and continued success, he said.

“We are committed to ensuring the Delta pilots have industry-leading pay, benefits and work rules,” Dickson said.

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

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