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Published: Sunday, 5/13/2001

Striking Comair pilots vote down contract offer


COVINGTON, Ky. - Striking Comair pilots have rejected a proposal that would have ended the walkout they began on March 26, the Air Line Pilots Association announced last night.

The vote was 1,042-99, the union said.

The National Mediation Board crafted the settlement proposal after eight consecutive days of negotiations between Comair and the pilots in Washington.

Comair said no new talks are scheduled, and the mediation board has said it will be at least 30 days before new talks can be held.

The union's leaders said the proposal didn't satisfy their goals in the negotiations, but they decided to let the pilots decide whether to accept or reject it.

The Comair strike has cost Toledo Express Airport seven daily flights, with 50 seats each, to the Delta Air Lines hub in Cincinnati.

Officials with the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates the airport, have estimated that Comair's absence is costing Toledo Express about $1,000 a day in landing fees, ticket taxes, and parking and concession revenue.

They believe that about 40 percent of passengers who held Comair tickets for canceled flights have been rebooked through Detroit.

Comair had the highest share of passengers last year at Toledo Express. Despite the absence of Comair, passenger volume at Toledo Express increased by more than 30 percent last month compared with April, 2000, according to port authority statistics.

A continuing wave of leisure travelers since AirTran Airways entered the Toledo market in the fall has more than offset any business lost to the Comair strike, Airport Director Paul Toth said.

On April 16, the airline announced plans to sell 17 of its planes to preserve its financial health, a move that officials said will reduce Comair's daily flight volume when service resumes.

Elizabeth Cannon, an airline spokeswoman, has declined to predict how many daily flights Comair would operate to Toledo or other cities should it resume operations.

Last year, Comair's 66,752 passenger boardings accounted for 24.3 percent of the business at Toledo Express. In addition to Comair and AirTran, four other airlines provide service at Toledo Express: ASA/Delta Connection, American Eagle, USAirways, and Northwest Airlink.

Delta Air Lines, which bought Comair in January, 2000, for $1.8 billion, had said that yesterday's Comair vote would be critical. Comair is the nation's second-largest regional airline behind American Eagle.

“They are making a statement about the future direction of Comair and their own careers,” Frederick Reid, Delta's president and chief operating officer, said as the pilots began voting Thursday.

Mr. Reid said then that if the proposal was rejected, Delta was prepared to take any actions necessary to protect its investment and to continue serving Cincinnati as a flight network hub. Delta has received offers for 60 of Comair's aircraft, he said.

Comair's current contract paid pilots from $16,000 to $96,000. The rejected proposal's range was between $21,000 and $104,000, and would have made Comair fliers the best-paid in the regional airline industry, management said.

Union leaders said the proposal fell short of pilots' goals for salary, longer rest breaks, pay for all on-duty hours and a company-paid retirement program. Union leaders said it offered inadequate company-paid retirement.

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