Judge Continues Comair Truce

A federal bankruptcy judge this afternoon extended the truce between Comair and its pilots union until Feb. 9, postponing any potential showdown for at least a week as negotiations continued.

At the conclution of a hearing in White Plains, N.Y., Judge Adlai Hardin told both sides he wanted the extra time to consider arguments in Comair’s bid for an order banning a strike as well as clarification of a previous order allowing the airline to impose $15.8 million worth of pay cuts.

Comair has authorization to cut pilot pay, but the union has threatened to strike if the company pulls the trigger. Before Hardin’s ruling today, a month-long truce between the Erlanger-based carrier and the pilots was scheduled to expire at 11:59 p.m. Friday

“We will comply fully will the judge,” said Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx this afternoon.

Meanwhile, negotiations in Washington, D.C. were continuing.

The pilots union said it would press ahead with negotiations.

“(We) will continue to seek a fair and equitable, consensual agreement; as this is the only solution that is in the best interest for all parties,” said spokesman Paul Denke.

Comair is seeking to lower its costs to lift it out of bankruptcy and says pay cuts will attract new business. Pilots acknowledge pay cuts are needed to right the airline but say Comair’s terms are too harsh.

Marx said Wednesday that “we continue to negotiate to reach an agreement, however, we have a responsibility to move forward with implementation (of the cuts) in the event discussions are unsuccessful.”

“They are not mutually exclusive processes,” she said.

Both sides have already made their cases for and against barring a strike by the pilots. Today, lawyers specifically will argue over a related issue: whether Comair has the right to selectively impose terms of the lower-paying contract approved by the court last in December. Comair doesn’t want to enact improved benefits provided in the contract they are authorized to impose and is seeking clarification of the issue.

Darryl Laddin, an Atlanta bankruptcy lawyer who served as a trustee and later the liquidating agent for Eastern Air Lines in the early 1990s, predicted the judge would eventually block a strike by the 1,600-member pilots union.

“It’s unlikely a strike would be permitted because it would cause harm to the airline and the public,” he said, adding that a recent decision barring a similar strike at Northwest Airlines would bolster the case against the Comair pilots.

Comair officials wouldn’t speculate on what lies ahead. Once the truce ends, the airline could impose terms and would likely do so if Hardin forbids a strike.

Earlier this week, the pilots union told members to consider whether they should look for other work with Comair poised to impose pay cuts.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the pilots union was cautioning its members of a continuing struggle, but also sending a message to Comair.

“They’re signaling to the company they’ve created a bad environment and they may have trouble manning planes even without a strike,” he said.

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.