There’s Still Hope for Comair

By Robert Mark on January 4th, 2007

Comair was the first U.S. regional airline to clearly draw a marketing line in the stand by ordering hundreds of Bombardier CRJs 15 years ago. Industry experts called Comair’s management team fools. No one could run a profitable carrier with 50-seat aircraft they claimed.

Then a funny thing happened.

While operating RJs was certainly less efficient than large turboprop aircraft, Comair passengers found they liked the jets. They were small aircraft compared to 737s or A320s and offered less interior space – OK, perhaps considerably less cabin space than a mainline jet, but they were afterall jets. And the public saw jets as more safe than turboprops. The dam broke and hundreds of CRJs and later Embraer’s ERJs became the mainstay of regional airliner operation.

Now senior management at Comair looked like early-adopter heroes to the rest of the aviation industry.

As the airline evolved, so did the natural desire of pilots to take part in making Comair and themselves more successful. That meant offering ideas for more effective ways to work, like quicker ground turn arounds, building more efficient lines of flying or simply a say in how their financial future might be determined.

Unfortunately, most airline managers have universal disdain for the opinions of what they see as pre-madonnas with too much time on their hands and too little business sense. At Comair it was no different. By the summer of 2001, labor/management relations deteriorated until Comair raised a strike line for over 90 days.

After 9/11, economics improved as mainline aircraft were pulled from inefficient routes and replaced by less costly regional aircraft. The move was not without conflict however as serious conflicts began erupting between mainline and regional pilots over scope clause violations that decided which pilot group would fly which aircraft.

Adding fuel to the fire was that although both Comair and Delta pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, the Washington based union more heavily favored mainline pilots, so much so that pilots at Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Comair formed a partnership to legally whack ALPA on the knuckles for their lopsided treatment of regional airline members. It was simple economics at first. Large aircraft plots were more numerous and paid more cash in dues. Everyone is still in court over that argument.

The indifference of mainline to regional pilots never subsided even as regionals began to show promise in the wake of September 11th. The good times for the regionals were short lived however as major carriers began pitting their code-sharing regional partners against each other to win the cheapest feed possible.

United dumped Air Wisconsin at Chicago – again – and Midwest looks likely to grow the larger SkyWest partnership it formed last week rather than offer the work to the Skyways unit the larger airline grew up with. Comair’s fleet has shrunk over the past 18 months with a substantial loss of pilot jobs. SkyWest pilots may organize and ASA pilots have already held informational pickets to protest a still unsuccessful four-year contract negoatiation.

So what does this all have to do with Comair and their current relationship with management?

The pilots and management are talking and that’s good, especially since management was about to impose new pay rules on pilots which surely would have led to another strike. Each side has agreed to extend discussions at least until February 2nd. But the two groups aren’t talking simply because management at Comair or any other airline has suddenly had a change of heart over the relationship with their cockpit crews. Again, it’s all about money.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that things are looking up for the airlines. Most made money in 2006 and more black ink is expected on the books for this year. If Comair and it’s pilots don’t start becoming realistic about demands pretty soon, the company is likely to shrink even more as parent Delta Airlines begins farming out more regional work to other carriers.

No one ever wants a strike. But the strike has almost ceased to be as a bargaining chip in the collective bargaining arena except for Comair pilots. Maybe Comair management has finally seen the line in the dirt it missed before the 2001 strike. Hopefully the pilots see it as well.

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