by Lisa Cornwell
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HEBRON, Ky. -- Comair and its pilots broke off talks Sunday on a new contract, and the regional airline said it canceled most of its flights scheduled for Monday in preparation for a possible strike by the pilots.
Comair spokeswoman Meghan Glynn said negotiators were told by union leaders Sunday that they were unable to compromise on the major issues. The Air Line Pilots Association blamed the company for abandoning negotiations, and said a strike at 12:01 a.m. Monday is nearly assured.
"If there is not a tentative agreement at midnight, or we're not in serious negotiations making headway, there will be a strike," union spokesman Max Roberts said Sunday. "It'll be hard since no one's at the table. But with the company walking out, they could walk right back."
Glynn said the airline, the second largest regional carrier, is canceling the flights "to ensure that its customers and employees are taken care of in the event union leadership chooses to call for a work stoppage."
The cancelation involves flights scheduled from 6 a.m. through 6 p.m. Monday, about 750 of the airline's 815 daily departures in a system that serves about 25,000 passengers daily. The company said it will announce later what it will do about flights scheduled after that.
Comair serves Yeager Airport in Charleston and is scheduled to begin regular flights out of Bridgeport's Benedum Airport on April 11. In the event of a strike, passengers with tickets from Charleston to Cincinnati could be transferred to another airline, Yeager Airport Manager Rick Atkinson has said.
Glynn said Comair was trying to provide customers with alternative transportation on its parent, Delta Air Lines, or other airlines.
"We are disappointed that the union leadership had decided to cease negotiations," Comair President Randy Rademacher said in a statement. "We believe it is in the best interest of everyone involved to get back to the table quickly and to continue talking."
Rademacher had gone to Washington Saturday to join talks with federal mediators and negotiators for Comair and the union.
Roberts said "the traveling public should be outraged" because Comair negotiators walked out on Sunday's talks.
"With so few hours remaining before a possible strike, our management should be at the bargaining table making good-faith efforts to achieve a contract," Capt. J.C. Lawson, chairman of the pilots' union, said in a statement. "This is an obligation of anyone participating in the negotiations progress."
President Bush, who intervened this month in a dispute between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics, hasn't indicated whether he will get involved.
"I haven't made a decision yet," he said on Sunday in Washington.
Bush could appoint an emergency board that would extend the cooling-off period 60 days and make recommendations on a contract.
Comair's 1,350 pilots say they want a company-funded retirement plan, more rest time between flights, higher pay and the right to be paid for all hours they are on the job, not just actual flying hours.
A contract offer that pilots rejected Monday would have given the pilots a company-funded retirement program, extended last year to Comair's other employees. It also would have increased the pay of top-scale pilots from $66,000 to $96,000.
But only about 40 Comair pilots who have at least 18 years of experience would have been eligible for that top pay, union leaders have said. There are about 420 pilots with two years of experience or less paid less than $30,000 annually, he said.
Comair, which also has a hub in Orlando, Fla., serves 95 cities in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas and carries more than 8 million passengers annually. Comair was founded in 1977.
Travelers on Sunday already were being affected by the labor situation.
Charles Mottram, 46, of Pittsgrove, N.J., was going to Philadelphia from Lexington, Ky. on Comair.
"Every flight to Cincy had been canceled. After waiting in line for a while, they told me there were no other flights into Cincinnati. They offered to send me to Atlanta and then to Philadelphia, but I assumed I could walk there faster than that."