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American steps toward strike

Members of the flight attendants' union authorize a walkout. The airline tries to downplay its significance.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


American Airlines flight attendants gave their union the green light to call a strike against the nation's No. 2 carrier if the two sides can't agree on a contract.

The strike authorization, approved by 96 percent of flight attendants, raises the stakes as negotiations that began three years ago resume next month, said union officials who released the results Thursday.

"This definitely sends a message that we're tired of waiting for a contract," said George Price, spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. "We don't want to strike. But if push comes to shove, we absolutely will."

The union asked the National Mediation Board in November to declare an impasse. That could trigger a 30-day cooling-off period after which flight attendants would be free to strike if they didn't have a contract deal.

American officials said the strike vote is a routine step in labor negotiations and doesn't mean a strike is inevitable.

"We believe our flight attendants deserve an industry-leading contract package, and that's what we're prepared to provide," Sue Oliver, American's senior vice president of human resources, said in a statement. "We want to conclude a deal."

A strike wouldn't seriously disrupt travel from Tampa International Airport, where American and commuter affiliate American Eagle combined fly nearly 8 percent of passengers. American Eagle, which flies extensively within Florida, would not be affected by the strike.

"The biggest impact would be on service to San Juan (Puerto Rico), Miami and some of Latin America," said Louis Miller, executive director at Tampa International. "Otherwise, people would have other (airline) choices."

But a strike would put a big dent in service at Miami International Airport, a major American hub where the airline carries half of all travelers.

Some Caribbean islands would lose nearly all airline service if American stopped flying: American has the only flights to Miami from Antigua, Aruba and St. Maarten and is the dominant carrier to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, according to Back Aviation Solutions, a Connecticut airline consulting group.

A showdown between American and its 23,000 flight attendants looms as contract talks for three other airline labor groups -- mechanics at Northwest and United Airlines and Delta Air Lines pilots -- reach critical mass.

The first strike could come as soon as March 11 when the cooling-off period for Northwest mechanics expires, if their union and the airline fail to agree on a contract.

But President Bush has pledged to keep the airline flying. Expressing concern over how a strike would damage the economy, Bush said he would appoint a presidential panel that would have 60 days to negotiate a settlement or send a proposal to Congress for approval.

American and its labor groups have experienced some of the most fractious relations in the airline business.

Flight attendants staged a five-day walkout that virtually shut down American leading into the Thanksgiving holiday in 1993. Both sides agreed to arbitration under pressure from then-President Bill Clinton.

American pilots briefly struck in 1997 before Clinton invoked the National Railway Labor Act to send them back to work. Two years later, they staged a sickout that grounded about half the airline's flights. They were protesting how American planned to integrate 300 lower-paid pilots from newly acquired Reno Air into their ranks.

American flight attendants have been working without a pay raise since negotiations began three years ago. They rejected a tentative agreement in 1999, and "significant differences" remain on pay, retirement and work rules, the union said Thursday.

American last offered a 16 percent pay raise over five years, less than half what flight attendants proposed, said Price, the union spokesman.

- Contact Steve Huettel at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

* * *

Contentious contract talks at four airlines threaten to disrupt air travel in coming months:

Northwest Airlines. Mechanics and the airline are in a 30-day cooling-off period and could strike as soon as March 11 unless President Bush intervenes.

Delta Air Lines. Pilots authorized a strike Feb. 12 but can't walk out until 30 days after mediators declare an impasse in talks. An impasse could be declared as soon as Wednesday.

American Airlines. Flight attendants authorized a strike Thursday but can't walk out until 30 days after mediators declare an impasse in talks. Negotiations resume March 2.

United Airlines. Talks between mechanics and the airline are stalled.

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