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Negotiations Fail to Bring New Contract at American

By Frank Swoboda
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The head of the pilots union at American Airlines said Thursday a strike against the nation's second-largest air carrier appeared "more probable than not" and warned that the union would not extend its contract beyond midnight even if progress were being made at the bargaining table.

President Clinton warned that a strike would be "quite disruptive," and urged the two sides to settle their dispute. But he gave no indication that he would invoke his emergency powers to stop a strike.

"I want to reiterate my call to the parties to use the mediator and think about how they can reach out to one another in the best interest of the nation, as well as of American and its employees," Clinton said during a news conference.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American pilots, is set to strike at 12:01 a.m. Saturday unless agreement is reached on a new contract.

The Presidents' Day holiday weekend is the second-busiest air travel weekend of the year and the threat of a strike already has spurred thousands of passengers to seek other transportation.

American, which carries one out of every five airline passengers, has said it will shut down its entire worldwide operations, including its American Eagle commuter service, in the event of a strike. American already has announced the cancellation of 250 international flights and issued guidelines for passengers who might be holding American tickets during a strike.

A senior Department of Transportation official estimated Thursday that a strike against American could cost the U.S. economy more than $200 million a day and strand as many as 40,000 passengers a day in its early stages. He said, however, that when placed in the context of the overall economy, the impact of an American strike would be "a pretty small percentage."

The U.S. Postal Service said Thursday that it was arranging for alternative ways to deliver the 50 tons a day of air mail - about one-third of the nation's total - normally carried by American.

By late afternoon Thursday, the situation at the bargaining table appeared bleak. James Sovitch, president of the Allied Pilots Association, warned that his union would not extend its contract deadline, even if progress were being made. He described negotiations with American so far this week as "incredibly difficult and not very fruitful."

"Our pilots don't want to strike. Our pilots will strike," Sovitch said.

Kenneth Hipp, chairman of the National Mediation Board, which is shepherding the talks, appeared equally pessimistic in his assessment of the negotiations so far. "I would describe the pace as still going very slowly and with great difficulty."

The gloomy bargaining outlook came as the union gave the company a fleshed-out version of a proposal the airline already had rejected.

Before they even saw the proposal, however, American officials were quick to reject a proposal to solve an issue that the union said was central to dispute: Who will get to fly new jets the airline plans to purchase for regional service. The APA insists that its members fly any jets operated by American. The company wants the jets to be flown by its employees of its American Eagle subsidiary, which pays pilots on average less than a third of the $120,000 a year earned by American's main line pilots.

The union said it is prepared to negotiate a competitive wage rate for pilots of the small jets, provided the labor costs reflect concessions by the union to improve productivity.

"We can't conceive of a scenario where APA pilots could fly these planes competitively," said American spokesman Al Comeaux. He said the new jets would be operated by American Eagle or they wouldn't be operated at all.

Sovitch underscored the importance of the regional jet service issue Thursday, calling it "an issue of outsourcing." If American Eagle is allowed to fly the jets, Sovitch said, it is only a matter of time before American begins replacing the main carrier with the commuter service on many routes.

The new, smaller jets that American wants to buy carry 50 passengers, can land and take off at small airports and can fly more than 2,000 miles. The APA sees the arrival of the so-called regional jets as a major turning point for the U.S. airline industry, almost as significant as the shift from propeller planes to jets in the 1950s.