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Pilots at US Airways Unit Set Talks on 12-Year Old Contract

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- ( TheStreet) -- In a period of intense focus on labor talks with pilots at most major airlines, it is safe to say that the spotlight doesn't shine brightly on the pilot contract talks at US Airways (LCC) subsidiary Piedmont Airlines.

The 400 pilots at the regional carrier, which operates Dash 8 turboprop aircraft, work under a 2000 contract that was modified with concessions during the parent carrier's 2002 bankruptcy. Since then, US Airways filed a second bankruptcy in 2004, completed a 2005 merger with America West, pursued mergers with Delta (DAL - Get Report) and United (UAL - Get Report) and now is pursuing a merger with American (AAMRQ.PK).

"There is always something going on at the mainline," said Bruce Freedman, a 29-year Piedmont pilot who is chairman of the airline's chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. "The wholly owned (subsidiary) airlines have always dealt with this. There are many distractions for (the mainline.)

"I can understand that," Freedman said. "However, they do own us, and we would like to see a little more acknowledgement that we exist. When you are owned by somebody, it's nice to think they have an interest in you."

The Piedmont contract became amendable in May 2009. The two sides talked on and off for three years, during which the talks were overseen by the National Mediation Board for 27 months. In August, the pilots voted by a 93% margin to authorize the union to call a strike if the labor negotiating process was to be exhausted.

A recent breakthrough, enabled by informal contacts between the two parties, means that more talks are scheduled for next week, Monday through Thursday, in Washington.

"I think both sides know this is a very critical meeting," Freedman said. "Something has to happen, and I am hopeful there can be some very serious progress that both sides can come away with."

US Airways spokesman John McDonald said the airline is also hopeful.

"This is an expected part of the process and we look forward to continued talks that lead to a collective bargaining agreement," he said.

The issues, Freedman said, are the usual ones: pay scales and benefits including health care contribution levels. First officers at Piedmont start out at around $25,000 annually, while senior pilots at top scale earn around $75,000. In the 2002 concessions, the defined benefit pension plan ended for new pilots and pay scales were reduced, so that it took Freedman five years to get back to where he had been.
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