This week you're hearing the drumbeats signaling a showdown between a bankrupt airline and its employees.
This time it's Delta Air Lines pilots. They'll picket at airports in Atlanta, New York and Boston, threatening to strike if the bankrupt airline forces them to take a second big pay cut in less than two years.
The drop dead date for a deal or a strike is sometime around April 15. That's the deadline for an arbitration panel to rule on whether Delta can throw out the pilots' contract and impose its terms.
Should Delta customers worry about flying the airline in the coming weeks?
Pilots have the power to shut down a carrier, perhaps for a long time. That's not true for other employees, as Northwest Airlines showed last year when it hired replacement mechanics and kept flying after unionized mechanics walked out.
Delta pilots are making a public show of resolve. They opened a strike center near the Atlanta airport last month and on Monday began voting to authorize their union to call a strike. Images of pilots walking the picket line ups the ante.
Most airline experts, however, expect this dispute will be settled without a walkout. Companies in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they say, simply have too much power to force concessions.
Judges in the US Airways and United bankruptcies agreed to void labor contracts and impose new terms on employees. Unions argued that freed their members to strike. But in the end, workers accepted new deals.
Last week, Northwest and its pilots had a showdown. The pilots decided not to risk a strike that could kill the shaky airline and the company opted not to force a contract down the throats of their most powerful labor group. They reached a deal Friday.
Delta and its pilots union are miles apart over how much the airline needs to stabilize its finances. The carrier, Tampa International Airport's second largest, has asked for $315-million in concessions. The union insists the number is less than $115-million.
Pilots are angry. They accepted salary cuts of 32.5 percent in late 2004 and worry they might see pensions slashed if Delta dumps their retirement plan on the federal government as US Airways and United did.
There's another ingredient in the volatile mix, airline consultant Darryl Jenkins said. Pilots don't trust Delta's executives, whom they see as short-timers anticipating the airline will be the losing partner in a merger.
"They're in a pretty foul mood," he says. "That makes it less certain what will happen."
Still, you'd have to be in a real ugly mood to risk sinking your employer. The airline business isn't a great place to look for work.
Even if pilots can find work, union rules put them at the bottom of the seniority lists at their new employers. For pilots that means less pay, smaller planes and flying the routes no one else wants. Not an appealing prospect.
Have you heard the one about airport security? ...
I really do try not to unnecessarily bash the folks protecting our security in the air. But these ideas for bumper stickers needling the Transportation Security Administration were too good to pass up. They're from a poster on the FlyerTalk.com bulletin board on travel safety and security:
- The Only Good Foot is a Bare Foot.
- When Shoes are Outlawed Only Terrorists Will Have Shoes.
- Thank You Richard Reed for not Hiding Your Goods in Your Jock Strap.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.
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