Pilots union sues over bonuses at Pinnacle; The union wants to negotiate all compensation for pilots and views bonuses as a unilateral action by management.

The Air Line Pilots Association sued Pinnacle Airlines on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, charging that the airline is violating federal labor law by paying bonuses to newly hired pilots.

John Prater, president of ALPA International, said that management is obligated to bargain with ALPA representatives on all compensation but that the airline unilaterally made payments to new pilots.

"This is the action of an antiunion management trying to break the union, and we will not stand for it," Prater said in an interview.

The pilots asked the court for an injunction to force the carrier to stop paying bonuses. Pinnacle pilots have been in negotiations on a new contract since July 2004. ALPA contends that the bonuses are an illegal "Band-Aid" approach and the carrier needs a new contract to attract pilots.

"This lawsuit is totally without merit, and Pinnacle Airlines will take appropriate action," airline spokesman Joe Williams said in a written statement. The airline declined to comment further.

Memphis-based Pinnacle operates regional flights for Northwest Airlines out of the carrier's hubs in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Memphis.

Pinnacle has been forced to cancel Northwest regional flights this year because it did not have enough pilot crews to operate its full schedule.

Pinnacle disclosed in May that it expected to pay a $1.1 million penalty to Northwest because of flights it did not fly because of its pilot shortage. In August, Pinnacle said it "recorded a performance penalty to Northwest of $1.3 million." However, it added that it had created "several programs in response to the pilot shortage," and that pilot staffing had returned to a sufficient level. Pinnacle employs about 1,250 pilots.

Despite the objections of Pinnacle ALPA leaders, Pinnacle launched a program paying a new-hire pilot $750 after the pilot completes the last phase of pilot training, the complaint said. In addition, the pilot would earn $500 after six months of service.

The union offered to enter into an "expedited set of negotiations to bring this contract to conclusion this year," Prater said. "Yet they are rejecting the bargaining approach and unilaterally trying to offer these bonuses."

Northwest, in its long-term services agreement with Pinnacle, gave the carrier an incentive to reach a deal with the pilots by March 31 of this year. When no agreement was negotiated, Northwest reassigned 17 regional jets from Pinnacle to Mesaba Airlines, a Northwest subsidiary.

In March, a $340 million Pinnacle deal over five years was discussed in negotiations, former Pinnacle ALPA chairman Wakefield Gordon said. In an early April interview, Gordon said, "We were $20 million apart at the end, and they couldn't come up with any more money to close the deal."

Liz Fedor - 612-673-7709