United cancels over 100 flights, blames mechanics

CHICAGO - United Airlines canceled more than 100 flights Thursday for the second straight day in an escalation of operational turmoil it blames on its contract-seeking mechanics. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers denies responsibility.

The airline attributed 85 of its 105 cancellations by mid-afternoon to maintenance problems - a percentage that spokesman Joe Hopkins said is ''elevated significantly from where we think it should be.''

The problems mark a return of major flight disruptions after a better-than-expected performance by United and other airlines over the Thanksgiving holiday period, the busiest travel week of the year.

On Wednesday, United canceled 134 flights, the most in at least a month, and cited maintenance problems for 92 of them.

But after a brief period of relatively normal operations following a settlement with pilots on Aug. 26, the number of cancellations began climbing again a month ago as mechanics' contract talks turned bitter.

The carrier, the country's largest, says the union is defying a Nov. 17 federal court order forbidding an organized work slowdown. The union denies that. The court's preliminary restraining order expires Dec. 13 and the airline plans to seek further legal relief then, Hopkins said.

Machinists' union spokesman Frank Larkin said mechanics had been told repeatedly a slowdown was illegal and not to begin one.

The mechanics' contract expired in July but negotiations remain stalemated. The union says it is waiting for the National Mediation Board to either tell both sides to resume negotiating or declare the talks at an impasse. That would start a 30-day cooling-off period, after which the union legally could strike.

Northwest Airlines, the nation's fourth largest airline, made similar complaints in court on Wednesday. Mechanics denied the allegations. U.S. District Judge David Doty issued a ruling Nov. 20 that forbids the Northwest mechanics from doing anything to disrupt Northwest operations. On Wednesday, he extended that temporary restraining order through Monday, when the hearing resumes.

If Doty finds the mechanics union willfully violated his order, he may fine the union. Northwest has said it would seek penalties of more than $100 million.

Northwest's mechanics have been seeking a new contract for more than four years. Both sides agree they remain far from a settlement. Northwest spokesman Jon Austin said the sides remain at an impasse due, in part, to a request for retroactive payments that would boost a new contract to roughly $6 billion.


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