A bankruptcy judge is set to rule on Northwest's request for permission to impose its own pay cuts and work rules on pilots and flight attendants. And Delta's request to reject its pilot contract will go to arbitrators if a second long-term concessions deal isn't reached. Both unions are threatening strikes if the airlines impose pay cuts unilaterally. Both airlines have said strikes could kill them.
As talks continued Tuesday in New York, Northwest pilots appeared closest to the edge of a strike. Two pay cuts have already sliced 39 percent from their wages. More than 92 percent of pilots voted to authorize a strike, the union said Tuesday.
Mark McClain, chairman of the Northwest branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, said he's still aiming to make a deal before New York bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper's deadline of 11 a.m. EST Wednesday. He said the framework for an agreement about who will fly Northwest's smaller jets is still in place. That had been one of the key sticking points early in negotiations.
"We'd certainly like to wrap it up," he said. "Our goal has been all along to reach a consensual agreement, and we'd like to do that before it's jeopardized" by exceeding any deadlines like the one the judge set for Wednesday.
Talks were expected to continue into Wednesday morning. A Northwest spokesman didn't immediately return a phone message Tuesday.
Northwest pilots have struck five times, most recently in 1998. Delta pilots have never struck.
Flight attendant talks continued Tuesday, too. But their strike vote runs through March 6.
Delta and its pilot union both said talks would probably continue even if the dispute is submitted to an arbitrator.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. and Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp. are the nation's third- and fourth-largest carriers. Both filed for bankruptcy protection on Sept. 14, and both have said they need worker concessions to be profitable again. Bankrupt carriers can ask a judge to let them reject their contracts, including union contracts.
The high-stakes talks on Tuesday were reminiscent of similar endgames during bankruptcies at United Airlines and US Airways. Only US Airways mechanics pressed negotiations until a judge ruled, and even then they avoided taking the company's imposed terms. So Northwest pilots will be in new territory if they reach that point on Wednesday.
Both airlines have said strikes would be illegal because the unions would not have followed the Railway Labor Act, which requires a 30-day cooling-off period after an impasse in negotiations is reached. The pilots have said rejection of their contract would free them from the RLA.
Northwest pilots held informational pickets at Northwest's hub airports in Minneapolis, Detroit, and Memphis, as well as in Seattle on Tuesday afternoon. And the union issued a strike manual to pilots laying out union strike procedures.
At Delta, both sides thought it was unlikely they'd make a deal before the Wednesday deadline. That would send the dispute to a three-member panel of arbitrators in Washington, with two weeks of hearings set to begin March 13.
"It's just the start of a new phase," said union spokesman John Culp. "There's nothing to preclude our talking up to and through the hearings."
Delta wants at least $315 million in long-term cuts, while the union is currently offering about $115 million in average annual concessions. Pilots already took $1 billion in annual wage and benefit cuts under a five-year deal reached in late 2004, including an immediate 32.5 percent pay cut. According to the company, the average pay of pilots last year who worked the full year was more than $157,000.
"The fact is that the company's and the union's positions are far apart," said Delta spokesman Bruce Hicks.
A term sheet filed in bankruptcy court in December, when Delta and its pilots agreed to temporary pay cuts, says the arbitration panel's decision would be binding on both sides, subject to limited rights to appeal.
The union, however, believes it could still strike if the panel were to reject its contract.
The three members of the panel are Fredric Horowitz, a California labor attorney; Robert Harris, a former law professor who has been a consultant for the government of Bermuda; and Richard Bloch, who sided with the Philadelphia Eagles as arbitrator of their decision to bench star receiver Terrell Owens.
Tom Parsons, president of discount travel Web site Bestfares.com, said that even if travelers don't avoid the troubled airlines, bankruptcy often takes its toll on customer service by employees.
"They're under a lot of stress, and sometimes they push that stress onto the customer," he said. "Customer satisfaction usually drops. The customer is wondering 'Where's my darn bag,' and the employee is wondering 'Where's my darn job?"'