Pilots, city poised for possible Delta strike
March 4, 2006
When the "Spirit of Delta," the airlines’ first Boeing 767, took its last flight from Salt Lake International Monday before retiring, it appeared to sum up the morale of the 70 Delta Air Lines pilots picketing below.
The $30 million gift from employees to the company will retire to a museum in Atlanta, and pilots are likely to vote to strike.
Air Line Pilot Association’s local union chairman Ed Thiel represents 713 pilots in the Salt Lake area, 170 of whom reside in Park City. He predicts a vote to strike is certain. Whether pilots decide to walk off the job, however, depends on the outcome in bankruptcy court.
"We can’t strike willy-nilly," Thiel explained. "The only time we have a right to strike is if they reject our contract. We’re just telling them what the consequences of the action would be. They’re the ones that pull that trigger."
In a few weeks, Pilots will have the final tally of the strike votes cast Thursday. IT would be the first time in the company’s history that the pilots have struck.
It is unlikely that employees would rally again to support their company these days, according to Thiel. In the 20 years Thiel has worked for Delta, he calculates he has lived through five different management teams– the company he once hoped to work for is long gone, he says.
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"[‘The Spirit of Delta’ was purchased] before I got there, but it was a major reason that I wanted to go to work for Delta Air Lines," he recalls. "You know, any management that treated their employees that well that they would buy an airplane for the company, that was a place I wanted to work Of course that spirit’s flown dead now, you know The last several management teams have treated the employees so badly, they would never do that again."
No airline management has ever rejected a pilot contract before, according to Thiel, which means, "Delta’s the worst in the industry We got a problem and it’s not the pilots."
Delta, the nation’s third-largest carrier, filed for bankruptcy protection on Sept. 14, and has said that it needs more worker concessions to become profitable again. It has asked for $315 million from pilot salaries.
A strike would be illegal, Delta executives counter, because the unions would be violating the Railway Labor Act, which requires a 30-day cooling-off period after an impasse in negotiations.
But "that’s their argument" according to Thiel. A rejection of the pilots’ contracts would free them from the labor act.
Delta pilots argue that they have already granted the company enough from their pay and benefits. In 2004, they agreed to give 32.5 percent of their pay to Delta — $1 billion in annual concessions. Thiel says the average salary is down to $125,000 a year — $325,000 including retirement packages.
In December, Delta’s 6,000 pilots voted for a 14 percent union-management negotiated pay cut, but the company asked for more.
"We negotiated and gave up 50 percent of the value of our contract a little over a year ago and now they’re coming back demanding 50 percent of what’s left and it’s just over the top," Thiel says.
City Hall is preparing for a worst-case scenario since a Delta pilot strike could eliminate a significant portion of Park City’s business at the end of the season.
The Chamber/Bureau estimates a pilot strike would mean a 50 percent loss of business during the peak tourist winter season, according to a report provided to Mayor Dana Williams and The Park City Council this week.
According to the city’s data, as much as $850,000 in sales tax could be lost from mid-March through April should Delta cease operating during that period.
The Budget Department calculates sales tax revenues at roughly $6.6 million for fiscal quarters three and four this year. Without Delta’s flights, the Budget Department predicts revenues would drop to $5.8 million.
"We rely very heavily on airplane traffic and lots of flights that Delta brings and they’re obviously the biggest provider in Salt Lake City," City Manager Tom Bakaly said. "Our access is extremely important."
Of Park City’s overnight visitors during ski season, 75 percent fly, and 75 percent of them choose Delta, according to the Park City Chamber/Bureau, Ski Utah and R&R Property Management.
A strike would launch the first stage of the City Hall’s recession plan, which would trim spending by 10 percent, Bakaly says.
Thiel said pilots would rather negotiate than strike, however, the pilots face a management team that hasn’t budged since September and is asking for more than they need.
Most of Thiel’s colleagues at Delta have been polishing their resumes, and are already discussing a Delta pilot job fair for the near future. The union has also applied for $10 million of the pilot association’s strike fund, which he reports amounts to $70 million, though pilots are more likely to go to another company than come back to Delta, he said. The company has admitted it could not survive a strike.
Thiel says in the event of a strike, he is already prepared to leave his Park City home and work for a foreign airliner in the Middle or Far East.
"This is huge," Thiel stressed. "People don’t really understand how incredibly onerous this company’s proposal is. It totally rejects our contract and it’s something our guys are just not willing to work for."