Delta Air Lines Inc. pilots aren't mincing words anymore: The chairman of the union's executive committee said Thursday the pilots will strike if their contract is thrown out as part of the carrier's attempt to impose $325 million in concessions.
The chairman, Lee Moak, also told The Associated Press that the airline has informed the union that it believes the pilots' defined benefit pension plan will be terminated.
"If our contract is rejected, we will strike," Moak said in an interview, in his most definitive statement on the subject to date.
Union leaders had previously said the pilots would not "willingly work without a contract," interpreted by many people as a strike threat. However, until Thursday union leaders had been cautious not to say they would definitely strike if the contract was rejected.
The nation's third-largest carrier has said a strike would put the Atlanta-based company out of business.
In response to Moak's comments, Delta spokesman John Kennedy repeated past company statements that the airline hopes to reach a consensual agreement with its pilots.
"Our language hasn't changed," Kennedy said. "We're in negotiations, so that's all we're focused on."
As to the pilots' pension, Kennedy said that as far as he knows Delta has not made any decisions on that.
"We're fighting hard to save our plans and are certainly awaiting the outcome of the pension bill in Congress," he said.
Delta and the negotiating committee of the union that represents its 6,000 pilots have less than three weeks to reach a comprehensive agreement on a second round of permanent pay and benefit cuts.
If the sides can't do that by March 1, a three-person arbitration panel will decide Delta's request that its contract with its pilots be thrown out so the company can impose $325 million in cuts unilaterally.
The pilots union has offered about $115 million in annual concessions.
Moak's comments came as Delta, which is operating under protection of a bankruptcy court, announced new international destinations Thursday. A top executive said the friction with the pilots won't stand in the way of the carrier's expansion plans.
Delta's chief operating officer, Jim Whitehurst, said the company still believes it can reach a consensual agreement with its pilots.
"We're certainly not holding up our network plans," Whitehurst told reporters, referring to the international expansion that was announced earlier in the day. "These are actually things that help morale a lot."
In a memo to pilots Wednesday night, Moak said that he has directed the official opening of a strike center, an office where pilots would prepare for the possibility of a walkout.
Moak said the airline's refusal to reduce its demand for concessions makes meaningful negotiations difficult. He said a management proposal offered Tuesday made only "minor cosmetic changes" to its earlier proposal. Moak told the AP on Thursday that in that same meeting, the airline said it believes the pilots' pension plan - guaranteeing retired pilots a monthly payment based on their years of service and salary - will be terminated. He said the airline did not say when or how it would go about doing that.
"Now they have informed us they too believe the plan will be terminated," Moak said of the company. The union has said previously that it believes the company intends to end the pension plan.
Moak also indicated union leaders were dismayed by the company's request Wednesday that the bankruptcy court give the airline permission to reinstate its pre-bankruptcy severance practices for 144 officers and director-level employees.
Under the program, severance pay of six to 12 months would be granted to certain employees whose jobs are terminated as a result of specified organizational or business changes. Employees who quit or are fired for cause would not receive severance.
Delta's Kennedy described the policy as "conservative by industry standards."
In December, Delta and its pilots reached a tentative agreement on interim wage cuts of 14 percent and other cuts equal to an additional 1 percent wage reduction. The purpose was to give the sides time to reach a permanent comprehensive agreement.
The permanent cuts would be on top of $1 billion in concessions that Delta's pilots agreed to in a five-year deal reached in 2004. That deal included a 32.5 percent pay cut.
Delta has reported $11.6 billion in losses since January 2001. It is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter and year-end 2005 results on Tuesday. It filed for bankruptcy in September.
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