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Delta Pilots Prepare for Possible Strike

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Mike Donatelli is something of a morale booster for Delta's pilots' union, which is part of the Air Line Pilots Association. As the strike preparedness committee chairman, Donatelli is traveling the country to lay the groundwork for a possible strike by Delta's 9800 pilots. At a Dallas hotel ballroom yesterday, he helped conduct a so-called family awareness meeting for 300 pilots and their families.

Mike Donatelli, Delta Strike Preparedness Committee Chairman: Strikes are won psychologically and that's really where it's at. So we get the families involved. We make sure that the wives understand what the issues are. Financially, we get the pilots ready. Mentally, we get them ready because it turns into a psychological warfare, and we do not want them to be unprepared. It's all about unity, and unity gives the resolve to win this thing.

Sprague: Donatelli wanted to put the minds of pilots and their families at ease. He told them what kinds of stress to expect during a strike, where they can go for help, and how to get home if they end up stranded overseas. This would be the first strike in Delta's history, so many of the pilots' families are nervous about what the future holds.

Debbie Chabot, Pilot's Wife: I have three kids and they're college-aged. Of course, we're worried. I think so because we don't know how long it will be going on. But I think support is there just because we see more this time how it's affected our husbands more than in the past.

Sprague: Debbie Chabot of Plano is married to a Delta captain who has been with the company for 27 years. In 1996, the wages of her husband and other Delta pilots were frozen because the airline wasn't making money. But for the last two years, the carrier has posted $1 billion in profits. So the pilots are asking for a wage increase to match the 46% raise United pilots recently won. And their families seem prepared to tough out a long strike, even if it means new financial challenges.

Anne Thompson, Pilot's Wife: We're not going out and buying new cars or making big purchases. We're just kind of laying low and going about our daily lives and trying not to spend too much, just so we can do this.

Sprague: Anne Thompson is married to a Delta Air Lines first officer. She's also a former Delta flight attendant, and has few favorable comments about the carrier's current management.

Thompson: I think the pilots feel like they're treated unfairly and not being paid what they deserve. They are so highly trained, and they are not easily replaceable.

Sprague: Delta pilots, like Greg Holm, who is based in Atlanta, emphasize pilots don't like going on strike and hope the airline meets their demands before April, when a strike could begin. Greg Holm, Delta Pilot and Union Spokesman: On the other hand, they are extremely unified. The high 90% of Delta pilots have told us they will go on strike; they will stay on strike as long as it takes in order to force this company to make good on their promises and give us the leading industry contract that they promised.

Sprague: However, the two sides remain far apart on key issues. Delta's latest offer is a 17-1/2% pay raise with future increases dependent on company performance. But Holms says if the union doesn't come to an agreement with Delta management, pilots want to shut the airline down. That would mean canceling hundreds of daily flights at DFW Airport and put 1000 local pilots on the picket lines. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.