Delta Air Lines Inc. pilots put on a united front Tuesday in defense of their contract from the company's attempt to void the agreement in bankruptcy court and impose deep pay and benefit cuts. The pilots insist their strike threat is not a bluff.
More than 800 Delta pilots and their spouses packed the rally at a suburban Atlanta convention center a day before a U.S. bankruptcy court judge in New York hears the airline's request to reject the pilot contract.
The nation's third-largest carrier, which filed for Chapter 11 protection on Sept. 14, has said it will impose $325 million in concessions on its 6,000 pilots if it gets its way in court.
"This is not about revolution. It's about resolution," the chairman of the union's executive committee, Lee Moak, told the crowd. "We will take this company back. It will be returned to its rightful owner - the employees of Delta Air Lines."
The pilots have offered $90.7 million in average annual concessions over four years. The cuts would be on top of $1 billion in annual concessions the pilots agreed to in a five-year deal reached in 2004. That deal included a 32.5 percent pay cut.
Delta spokesman Dan Lewis said the airline believes that its request of the pilots is fair and he also said the company doesn't believe a strike will ever occur.
"If you look around the industry at the carriers in similar situations, typically they've come to the table and reached a consensual agreement. We believe the same thing will happen here. Cooler heads will prevail," he said.
"The restructuring of Delta is not going to be painless," he said.
Asked if the company is going to train replacement pilots to prepare for the possibility for a strike, Lewis said "I think that would be the wrong focus for us. Our focus is on reaching a consensual agreement."
The company said in court papers Monday that if the pilots strike it will put the Atlanta-based carrier out of business. The company believes the strike would violate the Railway Labor Act.
At times, the rally was raucous. Pilots said they were angry because they believe the company squandered their past concessions and made bad decisions that forced Delta into bankruptcy.
"Thank God they're not managing the country also," Moak said of Delta.
Moak told reporters after the rally that the union's threat of a strike is not a bargaining position.
"I would never bluff," Moak said. "I'm very direct. What I say is what I'll do."
While the union has not decided for sure to strike if the pilot contract is rejected, Moak suggested that if the contract is rejected there would be some sort of job action. "We will have no choice but self-defense," Moak said.
Several pilots interviewed after the rally said they understand the consequences, but are prepared to stand behind their union if it calls for a strike.
"I think it's a sad day for everybody," said Bob Johnson, 46, who has been a Delta pilot for 20 years.
Asked if he would strike if the union recommended it, Johnson, who is married and has four children, said emphatically, "I'll follow right behind the MEC (union). Our goal certainly is to stick together."
Union spokesman John Culp said the union instructed individual pilots not to speak to the media. Reporters were allowed in the first part of the rally when union officials made speeches, but were escorted out of a closed-door question and answer session that followed.
Delta has recorded losses of more than $11 billion since January 2001 and over that period has announced that it would cut up to 33,000 jobs. Its loss in the third quarter, reported Thursday, was $1.13 billion.
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