US Air impasse could end soon Wolf promises swift response to pilots' suprise offer


September 19, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

US Airways Group Inc. Chairman Stephen M. Wolf promised yesterday to respond quickly to the latest proposal from the airline's pilots union, which could help break an impasse in negotiations and allow the company to affirm a critical aircraft order by Sept. 30.

In a surprise offer Wednesday, the union agreed for the first time to work toward creating parity between US Airways' pilot costs and the average of other major airlines.

During a scheduled meeting with more than 1,000 airline workers in Pittsburgh yesterday, Wolf begged off all questions, saying he wanted to devote his immediate attention to the pilots' latest offer. "He said, 'I want to study it very thoroughly, I want to respond to it very quickly, and I want to respond to it very fairly,' " company spokesman Richard M. Weintraub said.

Weintraub gave no indication, however, just how soon Wolf would respond.

Negotiations continued yesterday in Philadelphia with US Airways President Rakesh Gangwal rejoining the talks.

"It looks like the company is taking our proposal seriously," said Mike Oakey, a spokesman for the US Airways chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association.

The pilots' latest offer calls for cost parity plus 3 percent by 2002; the company has asked for immediate parity plus 1 percent. In addition, the union wants a labor arbitrator to determine the cost difference between pilots at US Airways and the average of pilots at United, American, Delta and Northwest. The company had proposed that an independent auditor determine that figure.

Once a cost difference is determined, pilots would be allowed, under the company's proposal, to determine how to arrive at an equal cost structure. Adjustments and cuts could come in productivity, wages and benefits and financial returns.

While significant differences remain, the letter demonstrated movement as the airline faces a Sept. 30 deadline to affirm its $14 billion order for 120 Airbus jets, with an option for 280 more. US Airways has repeatedly said that confirmation of the deal depends on first achieving a cost-cutting pact with its unionized workers. Until Wednesday, pilots had not agreed to the concept of parity.

With frustration mounting on both sides, the company this week began a series of meetings -- its second such round since April -- with employees in different key cities. The existence of the new proposal came to light during a meeting Wednesday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C.

Oakey said the pilots wanted to get the talks "off dead center." He characterized the latest offer as a "big Christmas present to ++ the company."

"We're anticipating a positive response," he added.

In a letter to Gangwal Wednesday, ALPA negotiating committee chairman Chris Beebe accepted a number of conditions sought by the company, including allocating 54 airplanes to US Airways' planned low-cost division, reducing its 7 percent pay increase, modifying a job security proposal and moving toward an agreement for early retirement by 500 pilots.

The union also offered to put 22 percent of the airline into the proposed low-cost division; the company is seeking 28 percent.

In return, the pilots sought a growth guarantee and enhanced job security. In addition, they want the company to recall the 101 pilots that it has furloughed this year and abandon plans to lay off another 42 pilots in October. The union also wants a seat on the airline's board and a substantial equity package, though reduced from an original proposal calling for $900 million.

Even if the two sides reach an agreement shortly, a formal ratification vote among the union's 4,800 pilots is unlikely before the Sept. 30 deadline with Airbus, Oakey said.

"But I think you could get something where they agreed in principle," he said. "And maybe that would be enough for the company to feel comfortable enough to affirm the Airbus order."

The company reached highly favorable terms with Airbus so it can replace older aircraft, start to simplify its costly, hodgepodge fleet and grow by adding more flights in new markets.

Wolf said Wednesday the deadline cannot be extended because Airbus, faced with a growing demand for aircraft, could easily sell the planes at much higher prices.

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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