Delta Stays Quietly Hopeful

Delta is asking its pilots to accept an 18 percent pay cut, or about $305 million.
Delta is asking its pilots to accept an 18 percent pay cut, or about $305 million. (Paul J. Richards - AFP/Getty Images)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Barring a last-minute agreement between Delta Air Lines and its 6,000 pilots, the nation's third-largest airline could be grounded as early as next Tuesday.

That's what Delta's pilots promise anyway, with a threatened walkoff. But some Delta frequent fliers are hoping that a settlement will be reached and Delta's operations will continue uninterrupted.

After all, in the past four years, the pilots at United, Northwest and US Airways all at one point threatened to strike during tense labor negotiations.

But each time an agreement was reached and a walkout was averted. (After reaching an interim agreement that cut their pay by 24 percent, Northwest's pilots this week began voting on a long-term contract.)

The Delta pilots battle, however, could be the grand finale. The chasm between Delta's pilots and the airline's executives seems a little deeper and the implications of the dispute more far-reaching than those other recent airline labor battles.

Delta is asking its pilots to accept an 18 percent pay cut, or about $305 million. That's on top of the 32.5 percent pay cut and $1 billion in reduced benefits the pilots agreed to in 2004. Several analysts, including Ray Neidl of Calyon Securities, say Delta should award its pilots equity in the airline once it emerges from bankruptcy protection. That's what United offered to persuade its pilots to agree to pay cuts. So far, Delta doesn't seem to be biting.

No bite from Delta, no budge from the pilots.

Last week, the leader of Delta's pilots union ordered its members to clean out their lockers at airports nationwide in preparation for the strike, and yesterday, the union said it had set aside $10 million to fund a strike. Delta wants to void its existing pilot contract and replace it with a less expensive one. Both sides are waiting for a decision by an arbitration panel on whether Delta can cancel the contracts. That ruling is due by April 15.

Delta maintains that a strike would be illegal and would within days force the carrier to shut down. The union says it has the right to strike because it would be without a contract. And because there is no precedent for a labor standoff during an airline bankruptcy, it's unclear how this will be resolved. "Delta's pilots will strike if their contract is rejected," said Lee Moak, head of Delta's pilots union.

Some travelers say they've heard the threats before and are hoping the Delta dispute follows the rest of the industry.

Kerrye Y. Braxton recently cashed in some of his Delta frequent-flier miles for a trip to the Virgin Islands in May. "I'm thinking, uh-oh, I might not be going anywhere," says the District-based management consultant.

Travelers along the East Coast and Southeast, where Delta is dominant, would be most affected. Locally, the airline has a large presence because of its New York shuttle out of Reagan National Airport and its commuter flights operated by Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines. In fact, the airline has the third-most flights at National and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the fifth-most flights at Dulles International Airport.

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