ATLANTA (AP) – Hundreds of Delta Air Lines Inc. pilots marched near the company’s headquarters Wednesday and placed a giant inflatable rat on a street corner to symbolize what they see as corporate greed in management’s effort to void their contract and impose pay cuts.

The demonstration came even as there appeared to be progress in talks that were continuing between union and company negotiators at a hotel in New York.

Spokesmen for the nation’s third-largest carrier and the union declined to comment about the closed-door talks, which were said to be intensifying. Any deal on long-term pay and benefit cuts would have to be ratified by the Atlanta-based airline’s 5,930 pilots.

An arbitration panel has until Saturday to decide on the company’s contract rejection request, but that deadline could be extended if the sides approach an agreement. The pilots have authorized their union leader to call a strike anytime after Monday and said they will walk off the job if their contract is voided. Delta says a strike would kill the airline, which is operating under bankruptcy protection.

The uncertainty about what will happen persists as travelers ready for Easter weekend. Delta’s mainline carrier operates 1,722 daily flights and had more than 118 million passengers last year.

A few hundred yards from Delta’s headquarters, pilots marched in unison, holding signs berating management for trying to impose its will. They placed a 20-foot inflatable rat with its claws extended on a street corner overlooking Delta’s campus. A sign in front read: “Bankruptcy profiteering.”

Inflatable rats have been used by labor organizations for more than a decade to demonstrate at job sites.

Union spokesman Mike Pinho said the rat is a “nationwide symbol of greed at the highest levels of corporate America.”

An official with the pilots union, Tim Parker, said in a recorded message to pilots late Wednesday that 450 pilots attended the protest, but other union officials refused to give an estimate and no one who attended the rally could verify the actual number. An Associated Press reporter counted more than 300 pilots there about an hour after the protest started.

Pilots aren’t the only ones who have been asked to tighten their belts at Delta, which has lost $12.8 billion since January 2001. Wage cuts have been imposed on other employee groups, and the airline’s chief executive has had his salary reduced from $500,000 to $337,500. The company is seeking to reduce corporate overhead costs by $200 million annually.

In a statement, company spokesman Bruce Hicks said Delta’s focus remains on its customers and on reaching a consensual deal with its pilots, and he noted service was not being affected by the protest.

“Though our financial situation remains fragile, working together we’re making great progress on our restructuring,” Hicks said. “Getting all of our costs to market – including our pilot labor costs – though painful, is necessary and crucial to securing Delta’s future and the nearly 50,000 jobs that depend on it.”

Some passengers and other employees were beginning to speak up as the arbitration panel deadline nears. A Tampa, Fla., reservation agent for Delta sent a letter to the chairman of the pilots union’s executive committee calling the strike threat “self-serving.”

Delta has been seeking up to $325 million in long-term pay and benefit cuts from its pilots, which would include a wage reduction of at least 18 percent. The company has offered to reduce its concessions request to $305 million a year if the pilots reach a consensual deal, while the pilots say they have offered $140 million. It’s not clear how, or if, those positions have changed since negotiations picked up steam Tuesday.

Delta’s pilots previously agreed to $1 billion in annual concessions, including a 32.5 percent wage cut, in a five-year deal in 2004. But Delta, which has imposed pay cuts on other employees, said it needs more from its pilots after filing for bankruptcy protection in September.

The company says the average earnings of pilots last year who worked the full year was more than $157,000. The union says line pilots made on average $151,000 last year. Both figures exclude management pilots, though the union figure also excludes instructor pilots and certain other pilots.

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