Comair pilots whose 2001 contract raised the bar for wages among regional airlines are now being asked to lead the way among union employees in accepting pay freezes.
The Delta subsidiary says that, without mid-contract pay freezes from pilots and flight attendants, it cannot afford to buy up to 35 new jets that management says are needed to win business that is going to its competitors.
The Comair pilots are voting through Tuesday on a new contract proposal that includes a pay freeze in exchange for other improvements that the Air Line Pilots Union requested. "Somebody has to be first. You'd like to think it would be the pilots," said Doug Abbey, a partner at the Velocity Group, an aviation consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
Comair is still negotiating with its flight attendants, who are paid between $20,000 and $40,000.
Comair's pilots went on strike for three months in 2001 to obtain their contract, which made them the highest-paid among regional airlines. It pays a senior captain up to $109,000 -- and helps make Comair's operating costs higher than rivals. That makes it critical that the pilots -- as the highest-paid among Comair's union employees -- lead the way in accepting pay freezes, analysts said.
Even though Comair is owned by Delta Air Lines, Delta recently bypassed Cincinnati-based Comair and awarded a contract for regional flying to Chautauqua Airlines, a low-cost operator. Chautauqua pays a senior captain $90,720. Atlantic Southeast Airline, another Delta-owned regional carrier, gives its pilots top pay of $98,484.
Comair will suffer if it continues to be bypassed, said analyst Ray Neidl of Calyon Securities in New York. "They won't go out of business, necessarily, but they'll have limited opportunities for growth," Neidl said.
Comair president Fred Buttrell has appealed to the unions by promising expanded business could mean creating hundreds of jobs for pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. Comair also imposed a pay freeze among nonunion employees and 10 percent pay cuts starting Tuesday for Buttrell and other top officers.
Comair says it needs cooperation from all its 6,200 employees, not just the pilots. Comair's nearly 400 mechanics rejected a contract proposal last week. No new date has been set to resume those talks.
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