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Comair Pilots Walk Off the Job After Contract Talks Fail
By Lisa Cornwell   Associated Press
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HEBRON, Ky. — Comair pilots walked off the job Monday after contract talks with the regional airline broke off, and union officials said they were prepared to continue the strike for as long as necessary.

"I think it's fair to say that there was not a single Comair pilot that wanted this to happen, but we have prepared for this mentally and financially and we are together," union spokesman Max Roberts said shortly after the strike began at 12:01 a.m.

Comair, the nation's second-largest regional carrier after American Eagle, had canceled Monday's flights in advance of the walkout. It serves 95 cities in the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas and carries more than 8 million passengers annually. It also flies under the name Delta Connection.

Comair's 1,350 pilots want a company-funded retirement plan, more rest time between flights, higher pay and payment for all hours they are on the job, not just actual flying hours.

"You shouldn't be angry at the pilots," Comair president Randy Rademacher told non-striking employees. "They want more pay, they want better benefits, they want more respect for what they do. Everybody in this room wants that. I want that."

The airline intends to keep its roughly 4,000 non-pilot employees on the job during the strike.

The White House said Monday that President Bush, who earlier this month temporarily blocked a strike by Northwest Airlines mechanics, had not indicated whether he would intervene in the Comair strike.

Both sides have said they are willing to negotiate, but no new talks were scheduled.

Twenty uniformed pilots staged the first session of picketing outside the airline's home terminal at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Pilots and their families cheered, clapped and whistled at the airport when the strike announcement was made.

James C. Lawson, chairman of the Comair pilots' division of the Air Line Pilots Association, told the crowd that Comair pilots want the same rights and dignity as other airline pilots.

"It has been a ruse and a management ploy to classify you as regional pilots," he said. "You are airline pilots."

Comair's president said he was disappointed by the union's decision.

"We went to Washington, D.C., this weekend to get an agreement and are disappointed that we couldn't work together to avert a strike," Randy Rademacher said in a statement.

Comair spokeswoman Meghan Glynn said negotiators were told by union leaders Sunday that they were unwilling to compromise on the major issues of pay, retirement and work rules.

Glynn also said the union had not offered a counterproposal to the airline's latest offer, made earlier this month. But Roberts said the airline had not responded to a union proposal presented Friday during federally mediated negotiations in Washington, D.C.

Comair, which also has a hub in Orlando, Fla., is trying to provide customers with alternative transportation on its parent, Delta Air Lines, or other airlines. Northwest Airline has said it will honor Comair tickets.

The airline said a contract offer that pilots rejected March 19 would have given the pilots a company-funded retirement program and would have increased the pay of top-scale pilots from $66,000 to $96,000.

But only about 40 Comair pilots who have at least 18 years of experience would have been eligible for that top pay, union leaders said.

Comair was founded in 1977, and this is its first pilots' strike.

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