PHI Pilots Begin Strike after 2 1/2 Years of Negotiations

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) _ Pilots at PHI, which provides helicopter flights to the offshore petroleum industry and for medical emergencies, went on strike today after two-and-a-half years of negotiations failed to produce a new labor agreement.

It is unclear how many pilots will observe the strike.

Stephen Ragin, local president of Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, said 330 of PHI's 570 pilots belong to the union.

Officials with PHI, known until recently as Petroleum Helicopters Incorporated, did not immediately return a call.

Although PHI's Gulf of Mexico operations are centered in Louisiana, Ragin says its medical flight operations are spread among 15 states.

The way for a strike was cleared on July 28 after the National Mediation Board released the union and the company from trying to settle the long-running dispute. Ragin says the main sticking point was the union's demand for retroactive pay.

Ragin also says the union wants PHI pilot to reach top-scale pay in 15 years, rather than the 25 years it now takes. Following the company's recent imposition of a pay raise, Ragin says top-scale pilots went from about 84-thousand to 95-thousand dollars annually. He says pilots with minimum experience start at about $50,000.