- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

The White House signaled yesterday that it is prepared to invoke the president's authority to intervene in labor strikes if Delta Air Lines pilots walk off the job this spring.

"The president is hopeful the parties resolve their differences," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. "He has made clear he would regard seriously any air strikes that would disrupt the economy."

The issue gained urgency yesterday after pilots for Comair, the nation's second-largest regional carrier, walked off the job. The 1,350 pilots want concessions on pay, retirement benefits and work rules. President Bush has not given any indication whether he would intervene in the strike at Comair.

The strike caused the cancellation yesterday of 750 of the airline's 815 flights serving 25,000 passengers daily. Comair, which also flies under the name Delta Connection, serves 95 cities in North America.

Earlier this month, Mr. Bush hinted he might intervene in a threatened pilots' strike at Delta. Comair is a subsidiary of Delta.

Delta pilots who are members of the Air Line Pilots Association are scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to accept arbitration to resolve their labor dispute with the nation's third-largest airline. They had set an April 1 strike deadline, but now say they will wait for a 30-day cooling-off period to expire before walking out.

Delta already has agreed to allow the National Mediation Board to resolve the dispute. The board can proceed only if the pilots also agree.

If the pilots reject arbitration this week, the Railway Labor Act requires a 30-day cooling-off period before they could strike. If the mediation board decides the strike could hurt the economy and recommends presidential intervention, Mr. Bush could then appoint an emergency board to resolve the dispute, delaying any strike by at least another 60 days. At that point, only if Congress takes the unusual step of legislating a solution to the labor dispute could government stop the pilots from striking.

Miss Buchan said any intervention by the president will depend on the mediation board.

"The National Mediation Board has to make a finding and recommendation to the president," Miss Buchan said. "They have not done that." The board also has made no recommendation to the president about the Comair strike.

Mr. Bush's last intervention in an airline labor dispute was March 9, when mechanics for Northwest Airlines threatened to strike. He ordered a 60-day cooling-off period and appointed an emergency board to resolve the dispute. The Northwest pilots could walk off the job in early May, if the 60-day cooling-off period expires without a resolution.

Mr. Bush threatened to take similar action any other time an airline strike could cause economic disruptions. Four major airlines are in contract negotiations.

In announcing the president's appointment of the emergency board, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "He does not think four airlines striking at the same time, or any number of those airlines striking, would serve the public well or the economy well. He is prepared to act if he has the authority to act."

Delta spokesman Russ Williams said he would not be surprised by presidential intervention if no agreement is reached. "There's certainly that likelihood," he said.

The big issues in the Delta dispute are pay, benefits and work rules.

Air Line Pilots Association spokeswoman Karen Miller said, "We believe that the airline workers should be allowed to exercise their legal rights under the law. Government intervention into airline issues and labor relations is not appropriate."

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