A U.S. Bankruptcy Judge on Thursday urged Comair and its pilots to return to negotiations and find a consensual pay-cutting deal, as he mulled a company request to throw out the pilots' labor contract.
Judge Adlai Hardin made his comments after four days of sometimes emotional testimony surrounding the request by the Delta Air Lines Inc. subsidiary to impose $15.8 million in concessions on roughly 1,500 pilots. During Thursday's testimony, one pilot said his family had to move in with his wife's parents because of financial pressures, while a pilot union leader said his group is "dead serious" about a possible strike.
"I would not be moved by threats of a strike or threats to close down the airline," Hardin told the courtroom. "I'm not going to be moved by threats on either side."
"It's going to take me a few days to decide how to decide," he said. "My own feeling is that it will be easier for both sides to reach an agreement before I decide the case, rather than after."
Company and union officials said after the hearing they are working to schedule more negotiations. It would be the two sides' first return to the table since Nov. 16.
Thursday capped testimony on the pay-cutting proposal, which Comair says is a necessary part of a $3 billion restructuring plan that Comair parent Delta Air Lines Inc. started when it filed for bankruptcy court protection in September 2005.
Lawyers have a little more than a week to write up their closing statements, and Hardin said it could be days beyond that before he rules.
Erlanger, Ky.-based Comair's proposal would mean an average pay cut of 11 percent for pilots, who earn about $58,800 annually, on average.
During testimony, Joseph Gordon, a 27-year-old father of three and Comair first officer, said the proposed cuts would force him to quit the industry.
He said his family already sold their Kentucky home earlier this year and moved in with his wife's parents in Minnesota.
Gordon testified that he would make about $33,000 next year under Comair's proposal, down from about $48,000 this year with overtime.
"As a parent, I would have to (make) the responsible decision to leave Comair," he said. "I grew up on a farm in the Midwest, and it was a dream of mine to fly. To give it up would be very difficult."
He said he couldn't afford to switch to another carrier, as he would have to start at the bottom of another airline's pay scale.
After the hearing, Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said the company appreciates its pilots' service and is "acutely aware of the difficult sacrifices all Comair employees have been asked to make."
Also during testimony, Comair pilot union leader J.C. Lawson said his group is "dead serious" about a possible strike if the company does impose the pay cuts. The union has begun balloting on a strike authorization, with voting scheduled to close Dec. 11.
In January, the Comair pilots had approved a plan for $17.3 million in annual cuts over the next four years. That agreement, however, was contingent on Comair obtaining a certain level of cost cuts from flight attendants and mechanics. Since then, flight attendants have approved a deal to cut annual costs by $7.9 million, $1 million lower than was required under the January deal.
That forced Comair to renegotiate with pilots.
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"My own feeling is that it will be easier for both sides to reach an agreement before I decide the case, rather than after."
Comair pilots on Monday overwhelmingly gave their union leaders authorization to call a strike.
Hearings on the proposed impositions are scheduled to continue through the week.
Delta Air Lines Inc.'s bankrupt commuter unit will resume talks with its pilots union today over a proposal to cut pay and benefits by $15.8 million.