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Strike Could Kill Ailing Eastern, House Panel Told

February 17, 1988|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A walkout by Eastern Airlines pilots in the event of a strike by mechanics might force the carrier out of business, an Eastern executive said Tuesday.

"If Eastern Airlines had a strike, there would be a high likelihood it couldn't continue to exist," Thomas J. Matthews Sr., a vice president of the airline, told the House government activities and transportation subcommittee.

Eastern, the nation's third-largest airline in terms of numbers of passengers carried, has lost $900 million since 1978, including $181.7 million last year.

"These losses are continuing and Eastern's financial condition is deteriorating," Matthews said.

The Miami-based carrier, which employs 32,500 people, is seeking new agreements that would allow it to cut labor costs by 30%. Contentious battles between the airline and its unions have been waged in public in recent months.

Scores of airline pilots in uniform crowded in the hearing room Tuesday, laughing derisively at some of the Eastern officials' comments.

The airline and its 10,000-member machinists union have been trying to reach a new agreement using a federal mediator since January. The carrier's 4,000 pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Assn., have refused to say whether they will honor picket lines if the mechanics strike.

Eastern officials said they have been making preparations to find pilots, mechanics and other workers who would keep the airline functioning in case of a strike.

Deal With Orion

The airline has already reached agreement with Orion Air of Raleigh, N.C., an air cargo carrier, to provide 400 pilots, 400 flight attendants and 75 mechanics to operate 26 passenger jets on Eastern routes beginning April 1.

Labor officials--and some lawmakers--say they believe that the deal is designed to defeat the unions. "This is a definite, obvious attempt to break a strike," said Rep. Gerald Kleczka, (D-Wis.)

But to the laughter of the pilots in the room, Matthews said the agreement with Orion is "just the opposite."

"We were driven by the fear that we would be driven out of business if on one day we had to keep all our airplanes on the ground," he said.

Rep. Cardiss Collins, (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, said a Federal Aviation Administration inspection of Orion last year revealed "an airline in near shambles," including problems with pilots' and mechanics' training, maintenance records and management.

'Progress Made'

But both James L. Heffernan, an Orion vice president, and Anthony Broderick, an FAA associate administrator for aviation standards, said virtually all the problems have been corrected.

Two years ago, Eastern was fined a record $9.5 million by the FAA for a range of maintenance and record-keeping violations. A three-month review of Eastern that ended last November "shows substantial progress has been made," Broderick said in a statement accompanying the report.

And the FAA report noted that while Eastern's management has improved manuals, operating specifications and maintenance inspection procedures, agency inspectors could not say for certain "if (Eastern) is now complying with its (own) program and procedures."

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