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Clinton Ends American Strike; Binding Arbitration Scheduled

By Jesus Sanchez
and John M. Broder

Los Angeles Times

American Airlines and striking flight attendants Monday agreed to binding arbitration to settle their dispute after the intervention of President Clinton, ending the five-day walkout that has shut down much of the carrier.

American Airlines Chairman Robert L. Crandall, who only the day before refused a union proposal for emergency federal mediation, said the nation's second-largest carrier will move quickly to rebuild its shattered flight schedule in preparation for the busy Thanksgiving Day holiday as flight attendants return to work.

In addition, the airline chief said plans to eliminate 4,000 flight attendant positions have been dropped.

The sudden end to the strike forced American executives to scramble and prepare for the onslaught of Thanksgiving Day travelers. Flight attendants will report for work Tuesday, but many are not in the cities where they are needed. In addition, American has to find planes, pilots and flight crews to operate the 20 percent of its approximately 2,500 flights it had canceled over the next several days.

"You need everybody at the right place at the right time to get an airline to work," said transportation consultant Harold Sirkin. "What are you going to do when a Chicago-based flight attendant who is supposed to be in Paris is still at home."

American says it expects to operate up to 70 percent of its flights with passengers Tuesday. That figure should rise to 85 percent by Wednesday, which is traditionally the busiest day of the year for airline travel.

American ticket holders should call the carrier's reservations center to find if their flights will be operating, said company officials. The carrier will continue to offer full refunds to customers who have not been able to find a seat on another airline or American flight.

Although not without precedent, the president's involvement in the five-day-long strike clearly took Crandall, as well as other industry and labor observers by surprise. The White House's effort to settle the strike came only a week after Clinton incurred the wrath of organized labor for securing congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"The president indicated that he felt that it was important to the country that we put this dispute behind us," said Crandall, in a press conference, as he described the brief and unexpected telephone call from Clinton on Monday afternoon. "I simply felt that it was incumbent on me to accept his suggestion. So, I did."

Denise Hedges, who heads the 21,000-member Association of Professional Flight Attendants, also received a presidential phone call.

"We thank President Clinton for his timely and thoughtful intervention," Hedges said. "We shut down the ... airline, but the strike is over now. It's history."

But Clinton said the administration had not exerted pressure on either side to change its position.

"The White House has been actively involved all morning trying to bring the parties to this point," Clinton said at a White House appearance with Philippine President Fidel Ramos. "But, to be fair, they were willing to be brought to this point. They were interested in trying to figure out what procedures we might follow so that we could get the strike over with, bring the flight attendants back, and start the planes flying again. So I have to give them a large share of the credit."

Clinton said that White House Personnel Director Bruce Lindsay had been the fulcrum for the discussions, spending several hours on Monday with representatives of the airline and the flight attendants' union.

A senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity, said officials in Washington felt Monday morning that it was imperative to push for a settlement before the Thanksgiving travel rush began. With American Airlines expecting to operate only 40 percent of its flights with passengers, the strike threatened to disrupt the nation's airports during the the busiest travel week of the year.

The flight attendants struck the carrier last Thursday after failing to reach an agreement after a year of talks, including federally mediated negotiations.

Both sides had deadlocked over salary demands, changes in work rules and concessions sought by management. The airline has offered pay raises, but the flight attendants said that the increases would be offset by employee contributions for health and retiree benefits. In addition, the company wanted to reduce the number of attendants on some flights.

On Sunday, the flight attendants union asked American to join them in asking the National Mediation Board to form an emergency panel to review and recommend a settlement. But Crandall said the process would be expected to produce a settlement that would not be in the long-term interest of the carrier.