Pilots' union pushes to settle contract

The Air Line Pilots Association is trying a new tactic it hopes will push Atlantic Southeast Airlines to settle with its pilots whose labor contract ran out five years ago.

This time, ALPA is hosting job seminars to help pilots at the regional airline prepare their resumes, sharpen their interview skills and learn where better prospects for employment may be if pilots decide to look for work at other carriers.

"We're going to take care of our own, even if it means helping them get a job somewhere else," ALPA spokesman Rick Bernskoetter said Monday.

ASA has about 1,700 pilots. Its sister airline, St. George-based SkyWest Airlines, is trying to fend off union-organizing efforts by an association of pilots seeking ALPA representation for collective-bargaining purposes. Both carriers fly as Delta Connection for Delta Air Lines. Delta sold ASA to SkyWest in 2005.

ALPA has tried several ways to reach a new contract with ASA. A year ago, the union opened a strike center in Atlanta and won approval from pilots to call a work stoppage.

In August, ALPA ran a full-page advertisement in The Salt Lake Tribune suggesting flights were being delayed and that the airline was canceling flights because of pilot defections. Bernskoetter said ASA has lost 250 pilots this year and that its attrition rate appears to be two times greater than at other airlines.

ASA spokeswoman Karen Modolo said pilots are leaving to take jobs at bigger airlines, which are beginning to hire again after years of cutbacks. She said ASA is able to hire more pilots than it loses.

ALPA has asked the National Mediation Board two times since last September to declare contract negotiations at an impasse. Such a declaration would start a 30-day cooling-off period that presumably would include intense negotiations to avoid a strike. A third request was made in August.

Bernskoetter said ALPA believes the mediation board hasn't declared an impasse because it is unsure whether the ASA pilots actually want a negotiated contract, as opposed to a strike.

"We are in fact interested in a [negotiated] contract and we consider a strike to be a last resort. We would go on strike only if every other available alternative has been exhausted," he said.

The union wants higher pay for ASA pilots, who are paid on average 11.5 percent less than pilots at other regional airlines. First-year pilots earn around $18,500, according to the union.

ASA's Modolo said the airline isn't happy that negotiations have failed to yield a new contract. The uncertainty is an obstacle to the company's efforts to expand, she said.

"ASA's pilots work hard and deserve a new contract that rewards their effort. But beyond that, we also want to grow our airline to new heights. We can only do that by showing our partners, both present and potential partners, that we are cost-competitive within our industry," Modolo said.

ASA operates daily flights at Salt Lake City International Airport but flies primarily in the Southeast. Until last October, it had 150 pilots stationed in the Salt Lake City area. ASA transferred them to its base in Atlanta, though some still live locally and commute.