Way clear for change at ASA; Carrier, pilots finally make deal

After five years of negotiations, regional carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines reached a tentative contract with its pilots union that may help clear the way for the carrier to concentrate on improving its operations.

A union spokesman said the contract contains a wide range of pay raises, and that overall the proposed deal would boost pay to above average after the airline lagged the industry for years.

"After five years ... maybe this is what a guy feels like on the first day out of prison," said Rick Bernskoetter, spokesman for the ASA unit of the Air Line Pilots Association.

The proposed contract covers about 1,700 pilots at ASA, Delta Air Lines' largest contract carrier at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Delta sold the Atlanta-based regional carrier to SkyWest Airlines in 2005.

"It has been a long road to get here, but we are glad to finally have a tentative contract agreement that will benefit ASA's hardworking pilots while allowing us to remain cost-competitive within the regional airline industry," ASA President Bryan LaBrecque said in a statement. The union announced the tentative deal to members late Friday.

The company and union have been in off-and-on talks since September 2002. The National Mediation Board intervened in 2004 after talks stalled, but made little progress as turmoil in the industry caused most airline employees' pay and benefits to decline.

Bernskoetter said the pace of negotiations finally accelerated last week when SkyWest's chief executive, Jerry Atkin, joined the talks for the first time, sitting in on three days of negotiations in an Atlanta hotel.

Delta has been turning the screws on ASA over the past two years to improve its operations. The airline has frequently had the industry's worst rates of flight delays and baggage complaints in monthly rankings by the federal Transportation Department.

The union also had increasingly shown its frustration with the slow pace of talks, often holding pickets and sending billboard trucks to airports that ASA serves. Pilots were "at the breaking point," said Bernskoetter.

Under the proposed contract, he said pilots flying the regional carrier's 50-seat jets will see the biggest pay increases because their pay lagged the rest of the industry. Pilots' pay is typically tied to their seniority and the size of aircraft they fly. He said new co-pilots who now make about $19,000 a year flying 50-seat jets will get a 21 percent raise, to about $23,000.

Senior captains flying 70-seat jets whose salaries are already near the top of the industry will get a 1 percent pay increase, to about $105,000, according to the union.

Bernskoetter said the contract also includes a $13.5 million signing bonus to be divided among pilots and contract language to protect jobs. The contract would block furloughs in certain circumstances and protect pilots' jobs if SkyWest, which is nonunion, transfers some of ASA's aircraft to its fleet.

The deal will have to go to a ratification vote by the union's members before it is finalized. It will likely be weeks before the vote is scheduled, Bernskoetter said, because final contract language is still being worked out.

ASA pilots' pay lagged their counterparts in the industry, but that gap has narrowed in recent years as the industry went through financial turmoil.

Pay for a typical midcareer captain at Delta, for instance, has dropped from $225,000 to about $155,000 as the result of pay cuts before and during Delta's 19-month-long bankruptcy restructuring that ended in April.