By Karen Jacobs and Nick Brown
(Reuters) - The president of the union that represents pilots at American Airlines has resigned after members soundly rejected a tentative contract from the bankrupt carrier.
David Bates said in a letter to pilots on Thursday that he agreed to step down late on Wednesday at the request of the board of the Allied Pilots Association.
The union's board picked Keith Wilson, a New York-based captain who ran against Bates for the top union post in 2010 but lost, to serve as interim president. Less than a year remains in Bates' term.
Pilots frustrated after years of unsuccessful talks turned down American's last and final contract offer on Wednesday, with 61 percent of those that voted, or 4,600, opposing, and 2,935 in favor.
The pilots could face stricter terms should the judge overseeing American's bankruptcy now allow the airline to end its current contract with the union.
Wilson and members of the union's board called for unity in a message to pilots posted late Thursday on the group's website.
"We will soon find out which path AMR management chooses to take - whether they acknowledge our critical importance to the day-to-day operation and long-term health of this enterprise, or whether they repeat their past mistakes," the message said.
WILSON AT AMERICAN SINCE 1985
Wilson, 57, is an Air Force Academy graduate who was hired by American in 1985. He has served on the pilot union's negotiating committee, benefits review and appeals board and financial audit panel.
Allied Pilots Association spokesman Gregg Overman called Wilson a "calm, steady, no-nonsense" leader.
"He's earned a great deal of respect for his negotiation skills and his knowledge of the industry and American Airlines," added Robert Herbst, a former American Airlines pilot who is now an independent airline industry consultant.
"He's tasked with getting the pilots of American Airlines the best possible contract given the circumstances that they have to work under with the bankruptcy court," said Herbst. "It's a challenging task."
American's pilots have had no true pay gains for years after working under concessionary contracts, Herbst said, and are now seeing their counterparts at U.S. carriers Delta Air Lines Inc and United Continental Holdings Inc obtain or move toward better labor contracts.
"They want their piece of the pie," Herbst added.
In June, Delta pilots ratified a new labor contract that provided a 4 percent pay rate increase as of July 1, among other benefits. Earlier this month, United Continental said it reached an agreement in principle with its pilots that union leaders said would help make economic amends for concessions in the last decade.
Bates, who had urged pilots to vote in favor of AMR's final offer, said he concluded that continuing to serve as president was not in the best interest of pilots after the contract was overwhelmingly rejected.
"Although I believe that ratifying the tentative agreement would have been the best course for our pilot group, the majority of our pilots signaled their preference for taking a different path," Bates, a Miami-based captain, said in his letter.
Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for AMR Corp's American Air, declined to comment on Bates and Wilson.
(Reporting by Karen Jacobs; editing by John Wallace, Andre Grenon and Bernard Orr)