Leaders of Delta Air Lines Inc.'s pilots union met behind closed doors Thursday to consider whether to ask their members for the right to strike if the struggling carrier imposes lower wages or succeeds in voiding their contract in bankruptcy court.
The nation's third-largest airline, which filed for bankruptcy protection in New York on Sept. 14, wants the court to reject the contract so it can impose $325 million in concessions on its 6,000 pilots, which would include a 19 percent pay cut.
Delta lawyers have asserted in court that the company believes it could impose new contract terms on its pilots starting next Friday even if the judge doesn't rule on Delta's contract rejection request by then. It's not clear if the judge extends the hearings beyond that date what Delta's position would be.
The pilots, who are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, initially offered $90.7 million in average annual concessions over four years. They have since reviewed their proposal and now value it at $150 million, which would include a 9 percent pay cut for seven months followed by lower cuts thereafter.
The cuts would be on top of $1 billion in annual concessions the pilots agreed to last year.
The airline has said a strike by its pilots would put the company out of business. It believes a strike would violate the Railway Labor Act. The union has argued that if its contract is thrown out by the court, it would be allowed to strike.
The pilots union was still meeting Thursday afternoon with no word on the status of their discussions.
During a visit to Atlanta Thursday to meet with executives from area companies, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said he is aware of the situation at Delta, but declined to say whether the Bush administration would step in if the pilots strike.
"We hope that ultimately they come to a conclusion that is good for everyone," Gutierrez said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said pension reform is a key part of helping Delta get back on its feet.
"If workers are made a promise regarding pensions, those pensions need to be respected and they need to be delivered," Gutierrez said. "That's been the administration's policy."
On Wednesday, a pilots union spokesman said Delta pilots may consider a vote to strike if the airline's managers impose changes on their contract.
"It is our contention that if they start imposing their terms we will start defending the contract," ALPA spokesman John Culp told The Associated Press. "If we hit Dec. 16 and they stick to their plan to start imposing conditions ... we'll consider any and all legal options."
Delta spokeswoman Chris Kelly said Wednesday the airline would consider extending the Dec. 16 deadline "if we felt a consensual agreement could be reached."
"Our strong preference is to negotiate in good faith and reach a consensual agreement," she said.
Wednesday was the ninth day of hearings focused on the airline's motion to dismiss its current contract with its pilots. So far, the hearings have focused on testimony from Delta executives and a Wall Street investment banker advising the airline.
Bankruptcy law provides that a debtor can impose changes to a contract 30 days after making a request in court. Delta made such a request for contract changes in mid-November.
The Delta pilot union's master executive council - 13 union representatives throughout the country - met on Thursday. Culp said the union pilot representatives may consider giving the union's chairman the ability to call for a strike ballot. It could take weeks from the launch of a ballot to a strike vote tally, said Culp.
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