Eastern Airlines said Monday that it would cease attempts to operate more than a handful of daily flights and would immediately lay off as many as 6,000 employees because its pilots were continuing to honor striking machinists’ picket lines.
Amid dire warnings that the end may be near for the troubled airline, Eastern looked instead to the courts for hope of resuming operations. Eastern’s lawyers on Monday asked a federal judge in Miami to order Eastern’s 3,600 pilots back to work.
They charged that the Air Line Pilots Assn.'s decision not to cross the picket lines set up by machinists and baggage handlers amounted to a separate illegal strike. Eastern workers represented by the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have been on strike since early Saturday morning.
Cites Financial Drain
Robin Matell, Eastern’s chief spokesman, said the airline decided to give up efforts to operate more than a few flights because “not enough pilots are coming to work.” He said: “We cannot continue to inconvenience passengers” with canceled flights and unpredictability, and added: “We cannot afford the steady financial drain.”
The Air Line Pilots Assn., which represents Eastern’s pilots, has asked its members at other U.S. airlines to begin a slowdown by flying strictly by the rules, starting at 6 a.m. today. Air traffic officials said they were not certain how many pilots would participate in the action and how much it might slow air travel nationwide.
“Early indications are that we are going to receive overwhelming support from all over the country, including non-ALPA pilots,” Ron Cole, spokesman for the pilots’ union, said.
Although there had been threats of spreading the strike beyond Eastern on Monday, including setting up picket lines at commuter railroads, no such action occurred.
U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson on Sunday issued a temporary restraining order barring secondary boycotts by transportation unions on three New York commuter railroads, and he extended the order to Amtrak on Monday. Patterson set a hearing for Wednesday to consider a permanent injunction.
In announcing its cutbacks in operations, Eastern said that, as of today, it would attempt to operate only its 62 daily shuttle flights linking Boston, New York and Washington and its three weekly round trips from Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile. Those are its most profitable flights. The airline normally operates 1,040 flights daily.
The airline had been trying to maintain a limited schedule of at least 200 flights a day but has not been able to get more than about 100 a day off the ground since the strike began.
Eastern had canceled almost all flights Monday, and Pan American World Airways doubled its shuttle service to take advantage of Eastern’s troubles.
Matell said the airline decided to lay off between 5,000 and 6,000 employees because the strike’s success in shutting down the airline meant that there was no work for them. The workers include reservations agents and airport personnel, gate agents and ticket counter staff. The layoffs leave Eastern with fewer than 7,000 active workers, down from 31,200 before the strike by the 8,500 machinists.
Seeks 15% Wage Cut
Eastern contends that its loss of $462 million last year was largely due to high labor costs, and it has demanded that the machinists take a 15% pay cut. Eastern mechanics get $18.83 an hour, compared to $16 at non-union Continental Airlines, $18.78 at American Airlines, $20.05 at United Airlines and $20.10 at Delta.
After a brief court hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Edward B. Davis said that he would not rule on Eastern’s request for a temporary restraining order at least until after another hearing scheduled for today.
David L. Ross, a lawyer for Eastern, asked the judge to act on an emergency basis because a continuing strike by pilots might put the airline out of business. “Eastern Airlines cannot survive at this time a strike by its pilots,” Ross said.
He contradicted the public assurances made by the airline’s chief spokesman over the last few days that the airline had plenty of cash reserves to wait out a strike, saying: “We do not have the cash to continue.”
Eastern’s legal claim against the pilots rests on an interpretation of the Railway Labor Act. The act permits unions to honor picket lines and stage sympathy strikes for other transportation unions that go out on strike. But Eastern notes that it has been in contract negotiations with the pilots’ union and contends in the court documents that pilots’ honoring of the picket lines amounted to an illegal, separate strike motivated only by their desire to get better contract terms for themselves.
Pilots Deny Striking
Cole, the spokesman for Eastern’s pilots, on Monday strongly denied that his union was on strike. He maintained that it was simply honoring the machinists’ picket lines. Pleas and threats to pilots individually had brought only 88 to 200, by union and company estimates, back to work by late Monday. Even many supervisory pilots, who also belong to the union, although they are classified as management, refused to cross picket lines.
The Eastern unions view themselves as being in mortal battle with Frank Lorenzo, the chairman of Texas Air Corp., which owns Eastern, who succeeded in eliminating union contracts at Continental Airlines in 1983 by bringing that airline into bankruptcy proceedings.
Since then, the laws have been changed to make it more difficult for companies to break union contracts by going into bankruptcy court. Both the machinists’ and the pilots’ unions have said that they would not oppose a filing under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy law, which allows a company to continue operating and grants it protection from creditors while it reorganizes.
The unions say they believe their interests would be better protected by a bankruptcy court judge than by Lorenzo and Eastern’s management. Matell has said that Eastern would file for Chapter 11 only as a last resort.
Staff writer Douglas Jehl contributed to this story from Washington.