The US airline industry is closely watching the outcome of the strike by Delta Connection pilots at Comair, which has brought into sharp focus not only the long running discontentment over pay levels at regional carriers but also the artificial cap put on aircraft growth by mainline pilot contract agreements.

Comair's 1,350 pilots have walked out of talks with no resolution of the dispute in sight and the airline has cancelled all flights until at least 5 April. Comair had offered to increase starting pay from $14,000 to $19,000 a year, while senior pilot remuneration would increase to $90,000.

"The outcome of this will be very important for the rest of the industry with other pilot groups watching very closely," says Debbie McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association. Several other regional disputes are looming, with Horizon's pilots in mediation and flight attendants at US Airways Express-owned Piedmont having voted to strike.

Regional pay lags badly behind mainline pilot salaries, which can be as high $300,000. Airlines argue that pay is commensurate with the size of aircraft flown; the smaller the size the more critical it is that low costs are maintained. Restrictive scope clause agreements at all but one of the major airlines limit the size of regional jets (RJ) operated by the carriers.

This is the result of pressure from mainline pilots, in many cases represented by the same Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) as their regional colleagues, which sees large numbers of low-cost RJ operations as a threat to mainline routes.

Delta Air Lines pilots are threatening to strike and one of the demands is for tighter restrictions on 50-70-seat RJs operated by Delta Connection.

"By giving mainline pilots job security you're taking away a regional pilot's ability to grow his income," says McElroy. "If regional pilots succeed in getting mainline type wages, scope clauses will go away," she adds. There is then the danger that some regional operations would no longer be financially viable and might be abandoned by major airlines.

The growing gap between regional and mainline pilots - not just in pay but attitude to scope - has been highlighted by the formation of the RJ Defence Coalition. This group of Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airline pilots are suing ALPA contending that the union cannot represent both ends of the pilot spectrum.

Source: Flight International