USAirways pilots talk about regional jet plan

Union considers proposal to double number allowed

April 16, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Leaders of US Airways' pilots union met yesterday to discuss a new company proposal that would double the number of regional jets the airline is allowed to fly, while industry analysts hailed the measure as a potential breakthrough in the company's restructuring efforts.

The introduction of more 50-seat, regional jets has been called critical to helping the Arlington, Va.-based airline cut costs and become more competitive on short-haul routes that don't generate enough passengers to make the use of larger planes pay. US Airways has been bleeding cash since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 and is expected to report a first-quarter loss Thursday.

The airline is allowed to use up to 70 regional jets under its contract with the Air Line Pilots Association - a fraction of the roughly 220 used by competitor Delta Air Lines. Under the latest proposal, the company would be allowed to fly up to 140 regional jets in exchange for certain job protections for the pilots union.

If accepted, the proposal would be a major victory for David N. Siegel, who took over as chief executive officer for US Airways last month. A deal with the pilots eluded his predecessor, Stephen M. Wolf, despite months of trying.

"We are encouraged that the recent discussions moved forward quickly and productively," Siegel said in a statement announcing the proposal to employees. "Now is the time for these important challenges facing our company to be addressed in a cooperative and timely manner."

Analysts said Siegel's fast action is a positive sign.

"Obviously, they need to fly more regional jets," said Jim Corridore, an airline analyst with Standard & Poor's. "It definitely allows you to be more competitive in certain smaller-scale markets where flying a mainline jet is not economically feasible."

Michael Boyd, an Evergreen, Colo., aviation consultant, said the addition of 70 regional jets should be enough to address US Airways' competitive problems on short-haul routes. The planes will help funnel more passengers to the airline's hubs, he said.

"They will get better feed in markets where they are not real strong," Boyd said.

Pilot leaders met in Pittsburgh to debate the company's latest proposal, but a decision had not been reached by late afternoon. The meeting will continue today.

"It appears to be an intermediate step for both sides toward achieving their objectives, and it contains some provisions that address our pilot job protection concerns," said Roy Freundlich, a spokesman for the union.

The union has resisted the company's efforts to increase its regional jet fleet without job protections for pilots who fly the company's large jets. Regional jet pilots typically earn less than their mainline counterparts. Talks broke off last month after pilots complained that US Airways' negotiators were not empowered to complete a deal.

The new proposal would prevent US Airways from furloughing additional pilots beyond the 1,350 scheduled to be furloughed as a result of the attacks of Sept. 11. In addition, a small number of furloughs scheduled to take effect in May would be delayed until September. Furloughed pilots would have an opportunity to fly some of the regional jets, and the airline would give the pilots more input on future staffing decisions, among other things.

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