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Delta, pilots reach tentative agreement

Delta Air Lines pilots walk a picket line near their headquarters on Wednesday. The airline and its pilots union reached a tenative deal that could avert a threatened strike, though it awaits approval from the flyers.
Delta Air Lines pilots walk a picket line near their headquarters on Wednesday. The airline and its pilots union reached a tenative deal that could avert a threatened strike, though it awaits approval from the flyers.John Amis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

One hurdle for Delta Air Lines Inc. is over: the nation’s third-largest carrier on Friday avoided a possible strike for now by reaching a tentative deal with negotiators for its pilots union on permanent pay cuts.

Now comes what could be the harder part — getting the Atlanta-based airline’s 5,930 pilots, who came to the brink of a walkout, to approve the deal.

The pilots have mixed feelings about the job senior executives have done since the company filed for bankruptcy in September, and ratification of the agreement isn’t a lock.

“Emotions are running high,” Chief Executive Gerald Grinstein said in a recorded message to employees. “Our customers have expressed concern. Now more than ever, we need to support and respect one another.”

Delta pilot Keith Rosenkranz, who has been with the company 15 years and generally flies international routes to Europe and South America, said he’s not sure how he will vote on the deal. He said he needs to see the details first.

“I was a little worried last night that my last landing in Rome was the last of my career,” said Rosenkranz, who lives in Grapevine, Texas.

He said he’s glad at least there is some sort of resolution, though union member ratification is still an unanswered question.

“I think the Delta pilots have always been willing to help the company in a time of need,” Rosenkranz said. “We’ve proven that repeatedly over the years. But there does come a point when you have to stand up for your profession and the things that you negotiated in good faith, and if the company is not willing to recognize that then I’m not going to vote for something that continues to take.”

Delta’s pilot strike threat had unnerved passengers, some of whom scrambled to make alternate travel plans over the holiday weekend. The threat also hurt bookings on the airline.

Delta’s mainline carrier operates 1,722 daily flights and had more than 118 million passengers last year.

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, passengers said they were relieved by news of the tentative deal.

“I just had my fingers crossed,” said Rose Shefrin of Baltimore, as she waited to pick up her baggage after having arrived on a Delta flight for a few days with relatives. “I had hoped that they would work it out and I’m so happy that they did.”

No details of the agreement between Delta and its pilots union were released.

The pilots union had threatened to strike if its contract was thrown out. Delta has said in court papers that a pilot strike would put it out of business.

An arbitration panel had until Saturday to decide on Delta’s request to throw out its pilot contract so it could impose up to $325 million in annual pay and benefit cuts. That decision is now on hold with the tentative agreement, but it could resurface if the rank-and-file pilots reject the accord. No date for a vote was set.

“I’m very pleased the parties have reached a tentative agreement,” the panel chairman, Richard Bloch, told The Associated Press.

The deal, if approved, would replace an interim pay cut pact the two sides reached in December.

In a statement, Delta said the airline believes passengers can book with confidence.

Meanwhile, talks are continuing between Delta’s wholly owned subsidiary, Comair, and its flight attendants. A federal bankruptcy judge agreed this week to postpone until Monday a decision on whether to void Comair’s contract with its flight attendants. Both sides requested the postponement to allow more time for negotiations.

The regional airline, based just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Erlanger, Ky., filed for bankruptcy protection along with Delta last year. Comair is seeking $8.9 million in wage cuts and other savings from the flight attendants.

In a memo to Delta pilots, the chairman of the union’s executive committee, Lee Moak, said the deal was reached early Friday morning. He said the union’s governing body will meet in the next week to discuss the deal and determine whether to recommend it to the membership.

Delta’s pilots previously agreed to $1 billion in annual concessions, including a 32.5 percent wage cut, in a five-year deal in 2004. But Delta, which has imposed pay cuts on other employees, said it needs more from its pilots.

The company says the average earnings of pilots last year who worked the full year was more than $157,000. But the pilots union has said the figure was inflated by overtime and they have projected a significant decrease in average pilot earnings for 2006.