Helicopter pilots for La. offshore petroleum, medical flights in 15 states go on strike

Helicopter pilots for La. offshore petroleum, medical flights in 15 states go on strike

A union representing pilots at PHI Inc., which provides helicopter flights for the offshore petroleum industry and medical emergencies, went on strike Wednesday.

Negotiations lasted 2½ years but failed to produce a new labor agreement. The National Mediation Board in July had released the union and the company from trying to settle.

It was unclear how many pilots would observe the strike. Stephen Ragin, local president of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, said 330 of PHI’s 570 pilots belong to the union.

Officials of Lafayette-based PHI Inc., known until recently as Petroleum Helicopters Inc., did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

PHI’s Gulf of Mexico operations are centered in Louisiana, while its medical flight services are spread among 15 states, Ragin said.

Ragin said the main sticking point was the union’s demand for retroactive pay. The previous contract with PHI expired in 2004 and pilots have continued working.

”It’s been so long, 30 months, and it’s a big-ticket item,” Ragin said.

Ragin also said the union wanted PHI pilots 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, top-scale pilots went from about $84,000 to $95,000 annually, Ragin said. Pilots with minimum experience start at about $50,000, he said.

John Strickland, a union official who works in the air medical side of PHI’s operations, said the strike won’t jeopardize any medical transports because several companies compete for that business.

PHI is the primary helicopter provider for Shell Exploration & Production Co., an arm of Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Company spokesman Fred Palmer said Shell had been aware of the possibility of a strike and had made contingency plans.

”We have other providers we can look to for craft depending upon how many PHI craft aren’t available because of the strike. We think it will have limited impact on our day-to-day operations,” Palmer said.

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