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Comair ponders its post-strike future

The Associated Press

HEBRON, Ky. -- Even if Comair pilots ratify a new contract, the regional airline faces tough decisions about how to rebuild from a nearly 3-month-old strike.

Comair, which before the walkout March 26 served 95 cities from Maine to Mexico, must reach out to passengers who have found other ways to get to their destinations.

The company also must decide how many of its 2,400 laid-off employees to recall and how soon.

Those workers include nearly all of Comair's flight attendants, customer service employees and ramp workers.

Officials of Comair and its owner, Delta Air Lines, declined Friday to talk about the future until after pilots vote on the tentative agreement reached Thursday.

Before the strike, Comair was the nation's second-largest regional airline, behind American Eagle. During the walkout it canceled all flights, eliminated 400 pilot positions, deferred some capital projects and sold 37 aircraft, cutting its fleet from 119 to 82 planes.

Industry analyst Michael Boyd said Friday he thinks there is a 50-50 chance that Delta will sell either Comair, sister Delta-owned carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines or both in coming years.

He said the 50-seat jets that the regional carriers operate are likely to become less economically appealing to major carriers than 70-seat aircraft in coming years, making the Comair-size airline less desirable.

Atlanta-based Delta bought Comair in 2000 for $1.8 billion and Atlanta-based Atlantic Southeast in 1999.

Boyd said that Comair should have little trouble picking up its passenger loads because its coordination of its flight schedules with Delta provides it a stream of customers.

"It's not so much an airline being on strike as a part of Delta," Boyd said.

Comair could have some lingering personnel problems to address if the pilots harbor resentment or if employees who were laid off are angry with the pilots, Boyd said.

"It can change the corporate culture when you have a strike drag on like that," he said.

Before Comair pilots rejected a previous contract proposal on May 12, Delta president Frederick Reid said the company's three-year growth plan included buying 80 new jets and adding 900 pilots.

Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski declined on Friday to say whether that is still the plan.

Comair and the pilots' union declined to reveal any details of the contract proposal until it is presented to the pilots, likely Tuesday and Wednesday. Pilots then would vote by telephone over the next few days, with the results possibly being announced that weekend.

There were about 1,350 Comair pilots when the strike began, but union officials are trying to determine how many have taken other jobs.

Leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association are endorsing this agreement, saying it meets the pilots' fundamental demands. The union did not endorse two previous offers that the pilots overwhelmingly rejected.

The pilots sought a company-paid retirement plan, shorter duty days, longer rest intervals between shifts and higher pay that would put them more in line with major carriers like Delta.

Boyd, president of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., thinks the pilots will ratify the deal. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's involvement in bringing both sides together is an incentive, he said.

"Once they got Mineta involved, it gave both sides an excuse to settle," he said. "This was a face-saving deal to get both sides back to work."

Boyd and other analysts said it could take months for Comair to build its service to pre-strike levels. Comair management told employees in late May that the company would need two to three months after contract ratification to get all its flight lines going again.

Kurczewski and Comair spokesman Nick Miller declined comment Friday.

Comair is based at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, a Delta flight hub. The airline, founded by a father and son in 1977, has enjoyed substantial growth in recent years as a feeder system for Delta flights and in serving smaller markets where Delta does not operate.

------

On the Net:

Comair: http://www.comair.com

Air Line Pilots Association: http://www.alpa.org

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