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Pilots picket at Aspen Airport

Jeremy Heiman

Air Wisconsin pilots picketed the Aspen Airport terminal yesterday over their contract difficulties with airline management.

The pilots are asking for pay increases, improved work rules and greater job security. They have been in contract negotiations for a year and a half and believe management is stalling.

The pilots of Air Wisconsin, which serves Aspen as a United Express carrier, are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, International.

“The primary issue is compensation,” said Jim Fenske, a pilot and an official with the union.

Air Wisconsin pilots took large pay cuts in a 1994 contract to help the airline get back on its feet after it was bought and sold by United Airlines in 1993. Pilots gave up 20 to 25 percent of their pay in that contract, Fenske said, and the pilots are looking for pay hikes of the same magnitude as the cuts they took six years ago.

Currently, Air Wisconsin pilots are paid less than pilots for other airlines, though some of them are more highly qualified, he said. The Federal Aviation Administration requires pilots who fly to Aspen to have special training and a higher level of certification because of the airport’s difficult high-altitude location.

In the 1994 contract, Air Wisconsin pilots also agreed to be on duty 16 hours at a stretch instead of 14, and agreed to half pay instead of full pay while waiting out mechanical work or weather delays.

“We want that full pay back,” Fenske said.

The pilots also want to be assured they will have jobs should Air Wisconsin be bought by another carrier.

“If they want to sell the airline, the pilots go with it,” Fenske said.

The pilots described their action as informational picketing.

“Picketing is one of the legal avenues we have, to let the traveling public and our management know we’d like to get a contract as soon as possible,” Fenske said.

The pilots are now in talks, overseen by the Federal Mediation Board, with the company. Pilots have accused the company of stalling because the representatives sent to the talks are apparently not authorized to make economic decisions and must always go back to company higher-ups for direction. The pilots will be back to picket in January if no headway is made.

“If the company continues to stall us at the table,” Fenske said, “we’ll pick another date and come back out again.” Other labor actions, such as “sick-outs” or work slowdowns are illegal under federal law, he said, and striking is not desired.

The pilots would have the right to strike if negotiations grind to a halt, but only with the sanction of the federal mediator, and only after a 30-day cooling-off period, Fenske said. And they hope they don’t have to.

“Striking is not our goal here,” he said.

The pilots are keeping an eye on current negotiations between management and Air Wisconsin ticket agents and ramp personnel. The airline’s flight attendants signed a contract six months ago.

Since 1994, the airline has been profitable, Fenske said, but has been reluctant to cut the pilots in on the good fortune.

“They can afford what we’re asking,” he said.


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