Delta Air Line pilots have thrown down the gauntlet to airline management and demanded formal negotiations in one of the most important US contract negotiations of the year. But a swift response by management has already led to a tentative agreement

In addition to "meaningful" salary increases, the airline's 9,200 pilots are seeking an end to the carrier's two-tier wage scale, improvements in holiday and medical benefits, better rest period rules, changes in regional jet operation, increased restrictions on international codeshare flying and full voting status representation on the board of directors.

Delta's master executive chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Chuck Gimbusso, describes the union's demands as "ambitious, but fair". He says the pilots have "waited patiently" for recognition and made major concessions in their May 1996 contract agreements when the airline was in dire financial straits. Now that the carrier is profitable again, the pilots expect to see a handsome return in their new four-year contract. "Delta pilots are intent on reaching a timely and superior agreement that recognises our investment," says Gimbusso.

Management, however, is likely to balk at such an all-embracing package. In particular, Delta president and chief executive officer Leo Mullin has made clear his reluctance to be railroaded into handing over a full board director place.

Delta is also unlikely to want to give up its relatively free rein on the use of regional jets, which has given the carrier a critical competitive edge over other US majors with restrictive scope clause agreements.

Still, a tentative agreement was announced on 23 September that sets new pay rates and rest rules for the Boeing 777 and 767-400, eliminates the "B-scale" and puts a 6% profit-sharing payout into pilots' base pay rates.

The agreement has been reached between Delta and Delta ALPA's negotiating committee, but must be approved by the union's master executive council before going to a vote. Mullin says the agreement sets a "constructive tone" for negotiations.

Average pilot earnings at Delta are $80,000, although senior pilots take home $200,000 or more. ALPA says these salaries now lag behind inflation by 21% and that the pay rate at Delta Express is 48% below that of US industry leader United Airlines.

Source: Airline Business