Return of Pan Am Pilots Seen as a Serious Blow to Strike

Times Labor Writer

The decision of Pan American World Airways' pilots and engineers to return to work will enable the financially ailing carrier to swiftly expand its service and may seriously damage the strike of the Transport Workers Union against the carrier, labor analysts and some union members said Thursday.

"It breaks the strike," just as the pilots failure to support striking air traffic controllers in 1981 broke that strike, said Audrey Freedman, a labor economist with the New York-based Conference Board, a business research organization.

Hans Plickert, an airline analyst with EF Hutton & Co, echoed Freedman's remarks: "I think it probably puts a very severe dent into the effectiveness of the strike."

Pan Am spokesman James Arey said that by this weekend, the company should be able to operate 50% of its flights, including some domestic routes. Since the strike began nine days ago, the company has been able to operate only 14 of its 34 international departures from its U.S. gateway cities, and has been unable to continue any of its 165 daily domestic flights.

The announcements by the pilots and the company definitely disheartened pickets at Los Angeles International Airport.

"I feel very bad about it," Jaime Villa, a Transport Workers picket and 17-year veteran with Pan Am, said of the pilots' decision. "We thought we had their support. They are the main force in the company."

Another striker, Howard Coates, a Pan Am mechanic for 29 years, said he felt betrayed by the pilots decision. "If you belong to a union, you never should cross someone's picket line," he said.

But Mel Brackett, president of the large Transport Workers local in New York City, said he did not think the pilots' action would have that big an impact.

"Our biggest ally is the traveling public," Brackett said in a telephone interview. "The airplanes aren't being provisioned properly; they're not being serviced properly and there is a question of safety."

Brackett said he had met with representatives of the Teamsters Union and the Independent Union of Flight Attendants, and that both organizations had assured him they would continue to support the strike and not cross picket lines.

"We've reaffirmed their solidarity; we will not be deterred," Brackett said. "We will continue with the flight attendants and the Teamsters until we get a decent contract."

Reservations personnel and other ground service employees are represented by the Teamsters. Management personnel have been handling those jobs since the strike began.

But for the last week, Pan Am also has been training about 800 people to become flight attendants. A company spokesman said Thursday that they should be ready to start work by March 16.

The Transport Workers, who represent about 5,700 mechanics, baggage handlers and food service personnel, began the walkout on Feb. 28 after rejecting a Pan Am contract proposal that included what company Chairman C. Edward Acker called a 20% wage increase.

But union representatives said the offer really amounted to only a 6% increase because the company already owed the workers a 14% increase that had been deferred since 1981. At that time, Pan Am's five unions agreed to give the troubled carrier major concessions in an attempt to help return the company to profitability. Pan Am has continued to operate in the red, however, losing $1.4 billion in the last five years.

The company has said it needs more help from its workers if it is to become profitable again in the increasingly competitive, deregulated industry.

Transport Workers Union members said they already had helped the company considerably and that they agreed to allow Pan Am to hire more part-time workers and to reduce health care costs. But they said the company had failed to honor its promise to restore deferred wages. "We feel we have to draw a line someplace," said one striker at Los Angeles International.

Pilots Reverse Stand

The pilots reached a tentative contract with the company two days before the Transport Workers walked out. As the strike began, Henry Duffy, president of the Airline Pilots Assn., said the pilots would honor picket lines because "a unified labor front is the only way airline employees can deal effectively with management in today's deregulated environment."

But late Wednesday, James McQuarrie, the president of the Pan Am pilots council, said the council had decided to reverse its field "after weighing the cost of a prolonged strike against the value of those few potential gains to be achieved."

McQuarrie was not available to explain his statement on Thursday. But Dave Fagerland, a spokesman for the pilots council, said: "We felt that while Pan Am is in the best position it's been in for a long time, a long-term strike could do serious damage to the company. The pilots are married to this company."

Fagerland would not disclose details of the pilots' new contract with Pan Am, saying that it is pending ratification. Industry sources, however, said the pilots would receive a 25.7% increase stretched out over 32 months, including the 14% increase that had been deferred earlier. Previously, a Pan Am captain with 12 years experience flying a Boeing 727 received $7,178 a month for 75 hours flying. A Pan Am captain with the same experience flying a Boeing 747 jumbo jet received $9,225 a month for 75 hours.

In contrast, a Pan Am mechanic earns a top base salary of $29,500 a year and a baggage handler earns $23,800.

"The pilots are grossly overpaid, and they're a good example of why the company is financially in trouble," Brackett, of the Transport Workers Union, said angrily.

"The pilots are paid so much more than other unionized employees they're in a different economic class," said Freedman, the Conference Board labor economist. She said their decision to cross the strikers' picket lines "makes you wonder whether pilots feel they're part of the labor movement."

Times staff writer Robert Dallos assisted in the preparation of this story.

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