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Delta Pilots May Strike Over Pensions

Delta Air Lines Inc. pilots will strike if their contract is thrown out as part of the carrier's attempt to impose $325 million in concessions, the chairman of the union's executive committee said Thursday.

The chairman, Lee Moak, also told The Associated Press that the airline has informed the union that it believes the pilots' defined benefit pension plan will be terminated.

"If our contract is rejected, we will strike," Moak said in an interview in his most definitive statement on the subject to date.

The nation's third-largest carrier has said a strike would put the Atlanta-based company out of business.

In response to Moak's comments, Delta spokesman John Kennedy repeated past company statements that the airline hopes to reach a consensual agreement with its pilots.

"Our language hasn't changed," Kennedy said. "We're in negotiations, so that's all we're focused on."

As to the pilots' pension, Kennedy said that as far as he knows Delta has not made any decisions on that.

"We're fighting hard to save our plans and are certainly awaiting the outcome of the pension bill in Congress," he said.

Delta and the negotiating committee of the union that represents its 6,000 pilots have less than three weeks to reach a comprehensive agreement on a second round of permanent pay and benefit cuts.

If the sides can't do that by March 1, a three-person arbitration panel will decide Delta's request that its contract with its pilots be thrown out so the company can impose $325 million in cuts unilaterally.

The pilots union has offered about $115 million in annual concessions.

Moak's comments came as Delta, which is operating under protection of a bankruptcy court, announced new international destinations in Africa on Thursday. A top executive said the friction with the pilots won't stand in the way of the carrier's expansion plans.

Delta's chief operating officer, Jim Whitehurst, said the company still believes it can reach a consensual agreement with its pilots.

"We're certainly not holding up our network plans," Whitehurst told reporters, referring to the international expansion that was announced earlier in the day. "These are actually things that help morale a lot."

Delta proposed service from Atlanta to Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg, South Africa. If the Department of Transportation approves, Delta would become the only U.S. carrier with scheduled service between the United States and the African continent.

In a memo to pilots Wednesday night, Moak said that he has directed the official opening of a strike center, an office where pilots would prepare for the possibility of a walkout.

Moak said the airline's refusal to reduce its demand for concessions makes meaningful negotiations difficult. He said a management proposal offered Tuesday made only "minor cosmetic changes" to its earlier proposal. Moak told the AP on Thursday that in that same meeting, the airline said that it believes the pilots' pension plan that guarantees retired pilots a monthly
payment based on their years of service and salary will be terminated. He said the airline did not say when or how it would go about doing that.

"Now they have informed us they too believe the plan will be terminated," Moak said.

In December, Delta and its pilots reached a tentative agreement on interim wage cuts of 14 percent and other cuts equal to an additional 1 percent wage reduction. The purpose was to give the sides time to reach a permanent comprehensive agreement.

The permanent cuts would be on top of $1 billion in concessions that Delta's pilots agreed to in a five-year deal reached in 2004. That deal included a 32.5 percent pay cut.

Delta has reported $11.6 billion in losses since January 2001. It is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter and year-end 2005 results on Tuesday. It filed for bankruptcy in September.

By Harry R. Weber

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