Comair Rescinds Union Notice

Comair signaled over the weekend that it would move quickly to cut pilot costs, if it gets an order blocking a strike.

The Erlanger-based airline mailed a notice to pilots saying it would impose $15.8 million worth of court-authorized cuts starting last Saturday – only to recant after U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Adlai Hardin delayed his decision.

Comair officials said they were trying to keep the pilots up-to-date when they mailed the notices but ultimately were forced to send a follow-up e-mail saying the mailing was “no longer relevant.” Spokeswoman Kate Marx stressed that even if the company imposes pay cuts, it already has the legal right to do so.

“It’s our intention to continue to negotiate with the pilots,” she said.

J.C. Lawson, chairman of the pilots union, said the gaffe didn’t improve employee relations.

“It really leaves a bad taste,” he said.

With no new talks scheduled, Comair and the union appear to be waiting for Hardin to break their deadlock over how deep the concessions should go. Neither side has ruled out further negotiations.

Thursday, Hardin postponed a potential showdown by extending a monthlong truce between the sides, indicating that he wanted extra time to consider whether he will grant Comair’s request to forbid a possible strike by the pilots.

The union has threatened a work action if the Delta Air Lines subsidiary imposes the cuts.

The truce now ends at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Experts disagree on whether Comair will win an order blocking a strike.

“I don’t think a judge would allow a strike – it would harm the company and negatively impact the flying public,” said Darryl Laddin, an Atlanta bankruptcy lawyer who served as a trustee and later the liquidating agent for Eastern Air Lines in the early 1990s.

Gary Chaisen, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the judge might force both sides to settle by refusing to block a strike.

“He’ll say ‘strike away,’ if he thinks they’ll go back to bargaining,” he said.

Whatever the judge’s decision, it will likely be appealed. Hardin did not indicate when he would issue a ruling, but experts think that it will be before the deadline expires.

Comair has another reason to impose: After the truce expires, pilot pay increases roughly $8 million a year as part of a previous round of concessions.

Before Comair filed for bankruptcy protection, the company negotiated a pay freeze that included a provision that said the airline would give the pilots their raise in 2007 if it failed to acquire new aircraft. Since filing in September 2005, Delta has shrunk Comair’s fleet.

If Hardin refuses to block a strike, it would strengthen the pilots’ position, giving them the threat to disrupt operations if the airline imposes new working conditions. If the judge forbids a strike, Comair would be clear to impose the cuts, and the pilots’ only recourse would be to appeal.

The average pilot now is paid $59,600 a year and faces an 11 percent, or $6,400, pay cut if terms are imposed, according to Comair. Pilot pay ranges from $23,000 to $110,000 a year, depending on duties, seniority and size of aircraft.