William R. Howard, former chairman and chief executive of Piedmont Aviation Inc., began warming up the crowd of United Airlines employes yesterday by putting some distance between himself and the people who hired him.

Earlier this month, Howard left Piedmont to become chairman and CEO of Airline Acquisition Corp., a company put together by the United pilots union and its investment bankers to acquire United Airlines.

Yesterday, Howard met with Dulles-based United employes to sell employe ownership, an idea initially proposed by the airline's pilots last April.

The pilots' offer put UAL Inc. -- subsequently renamed Allegis -- into play, prompted the ouster of chairman Richard J. Ferris, and led the integrated travel services company to put its hotels and Hertz rental car unit on the block.

While the dismantling is going on, the pilots are attempting to lay the groundwork for a successful bid for the company with a series of 14 meetings around the country. The International Association of Machinists union at United has opposed employe ownership of the airline, while the flight attendants union has stayed neutral.

Howard described a recent encounter with a United counter attendant in New York. According to Howard, the United employe stepped out and offered his hand, saying, "You may be a neat guy, but I don't want to work for the pilots."

"I said, hell, no, neither do I," said Howard.

Howard, who piloted Piedmont through years of impressive growth and profitability, said he was approached by both pilot representatives and Allegis' executive search committee about running the airline.

He chose to go with the pilots, he said, because "it was my feeling that it was not only possible but highly probable" to build "the largest employe-owned company in the world, the largest ESOP {employe stock ownership plan} in the world, and the most successful airline in the world."

He said the tax advantages that would accrue to an ESOP and the concessions that an employe-owned company could count on guarantee that the employes can bid as much or even more than any other bidder.

Whoever ends up in control of the company is going to require concessions of its workers, he said.

"The question is, will you give them concessions for free or will you get back equity in the company?"