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American Airlines, bracing for strike, cancels some overseas flights

February 12, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ American Airlines, bracing for a pilots’ strike, is canceling Friday night overseas flights, a spokesman said Wednesday. Negotiations continued, a mediator said, but ``slowly and with increasing difficulty.″

The White House said a strike would have major economic consequences for the nation but stopped short of saying President Clinton would try to step in. The federal mediator said even the suggestion of presidential intervention was hurting the talks.

The airline pilots’ union has set a Friday midnight strike deadline, and American was preparing by making sure its planes weren’t overseas if the pilots walked out.

``We don’t want our airplanes sitting in other countries,″ said spokesman Al Comeaux.

The union says it would prefer Clinton stay out of the dispute over pay and job security. The airline has been asking for administration involvement.

Clinton, asked about the situation, said, ``This issue has huge implications for our country and in particular for specific parts of our country.″

And aides said he had ordered staff members to study the potential economic impact of a strike, a possible step toward intervention.

But Clinton also said the negotiators should ``make maximum use of the mediation board process″ rather than waiting for any outside effort. ``That is what ought to be done today and that’s all I have to say about it today.″

Airline and union negotiators met through the day. But Ken Hipp, chairman of the National Mediation Board, said, ``It is going slowly and with increasing difficulty.″

As for the sudden discussion of possible White House intervention, he said, ``It makes it much more difficult to get an agreement at the table.″

Grounding the nation’s largest domestic airline could result in layoffs of as many as 90,000 workers and disrupt travel plans of many more Americans.

Aides said none of Clinton’s options looked very promising.

Some possibilities:

_Try to use the office’s prestige or his own persuasive efforts to force a settlement, or perhaps signal the administration’s sympathy with one of the two sides. But aides said Clinton learned in his unsuccessful involvement in the Major League Baseball strike that jawboning rarely works.

_Order an emergency 60-day ``cooling off″ period under federal labor laws. Clinton would probably need the recommendation of the independent National Mediation Board to take this rarely used step. The last time a presidential board intervened in an airline strike was 1966, during a machinists walkout.

Clinton would have to determine that a pilot strike would pose ``a substantial economic threat″ to deprive a region of a ``central transportation service.″ The presidential board would prepare a settlement recommendation within 30 days and give both parties another 30 days to resolve the dispute. If that didn’t work, Congress could vote to impose a settlement.

Presumably, Clinton would argue that a strike would be devastating to the Dallas-Fort Worth area where American is headquartered and to other cities where it has major operations.

The contract has been argued by the union and the company since it became amendable in 1993.

So far this week, mediation has resulted mostly in rhetoric. Both sides said new proposals that were being reviewed Wednesday seemed unlikely to be accepted.

The union outlined in its proposal a list of new pay proposals for pilots flying Boeing 737s, 777s and regional jets.

The company proposal made a few changes to a tentative contract rejected last month by a majority of the company’s 9,300 pilots.

The initial offer was to increase pilot pay by 3 percent on Aug. 31 and 2 percent on Aug. 31, 1999. The average pilot salary is $120,000. Also, pilots would get options to buy 3 million shares of stock at $10 below market price when the contract was signed and 2.75 million shares at the Aug. 31, 1998, price.

The new offer would increase the raise in 1999 to 3 percent, but drop the options to buy 2.75 million stock shares.

Union president Jim Sovich said the offer was a step backward, offering $43.1 million less than the rejected contract.

American spokesman Chris Chiames said he could not give a comparable economic analysis, but added:

``Frankly, we’re not quite sure what it’s going to take to please the pilots.″

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