Pilots Picket Outside Delta Headquarters

More than 300 Delta Air Lines Inc. pilots marched near the company's headquarters Wednesday and placed a giant inflatable rat on a street corner to symbolize what they see as corporate greed in management's effort to void their contract and impose pay cuts.

The demonstration came even as there appeared to be progress in talks that were continuing between union and company negotiators at a hotel in New York.

Spokesmen for the nation's third-largest carrier and the union declined to comment about the closed-door talks, which were said to be intensifying. Any deal on long-term pay and benefit cuts the sides were able to reach would have to be ratified by the Atlanta-based airline's 5,930 pilots.

An arbitration panel has until Saturday to decide on the company's contract rejection request, but that deadline could be extended if the sides were close to an agreement. Last week, the pilots authorized their union leader to call a strike at anytime after Monday and said they will walk off the job if their contract is voided. Delta says a strike would kill the airline, which is operating under bankruptcy protection.

A few hundred yards from Delta's headquarters, pilots marched in unison, holding signs berating management for trying to impose its will. They placed a 20-foot inflatable rat with its claws extended on a street corner overlooking Delta's campus. A sign in front read: "Bankruptcy profiteering."

Inflatable rats have been used by labor organizations for more than a decade to demonstrate at job sites.

Union spokesman Mike Pinho said the rat is a "nationwide symbol of greed at the highest levels of corporate America."

In a statement, company spokesman Bruce Hicks said Delta's focus remains on its customers and on reaching a consensual deal with its pilots, and he noted service was not being affected by the protest.

"Though our financial situation remains fragile, working together we're making great progress on our restructuring," Hicks said. "Getting all of our costs to market — including our pilot labor costs — though painful, is necessary and crucial to securing Delta's future and the nearly 50,000 jobs that depend on it."

Delta has been seeking up to $325 million in long-term pay and benefit cuts from its pilots, which would include a wage reduction of at least 18 percent. The company has offered to reduce its concessions request to $305 million a year if the pilots reach a consensual deal, while the pilots say they have offered $140 million. It's not clear how, or if, those positions have changed since negotiations picked up steam Tuesday.

Delta's pilots previously agreed to $1 billion in annual concessions, including a 32.5 percent wage cut, in a five-year deal in 2004. But Delta, which has imposed pay cuts on other employees, said it needs more from its pilots after filing for bankruptcy protection in September.

The company says the average earnings of pilots last year who worked the full year was more than $157,000. The union says line pilots made on average $151,000 last year. Both figures exclude management pilots, though the union figure also excludes instructor pilots and certain other pilots.