United, Northwest face labor troubles as holidays approach

CHICAGO (AP) - As the busy holiday travel season neared, two major U.S. airlines continued to grapple Tuesday with flight delays they blame on disgruntled mechanics. But as for an out-and-out strike, United said nothing could happen until after Christmas.

Four days after a federal judge barred United Airlines mechanics from disrupting flight schedules, the Chicago-based airline said it was still plagued by delays Tuesday.

United had 25 canceled flights as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, 18 of them related to maintenance, according to an airline hotline. On Monday, United officials said an above-average 121 flights had been canceled systemwide, 85 because of ''maintenance operations issues.''

A second airline, Minnesota-based Northwest, obtained a temporary restraining order issued Monday night aimed at preventing flight delays it says have been caused by work slowdowns by its mechanics. But delays remained higher than normal Tuesday.

As of late morning, Northwest had canceled 43 flights and said 36 planes remained out of service because of maintenance issues. That compares with an average last year at this time to under seven flights per day and under 10 planes out of service, the airline said.

Saying talks were going nowhere, United's mechanics union asked federal mediators Monday to release them from contract talks and declare a 30-day cooling-off period, after which workers could legally strike.

''This is a countdown to a strike,'' said Joe Tiberi, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

But United officials said Tuesday that cooling-off period could not be declared until next Monday at the earliest, when they and the union are scheduled to appear before the National Mediation Board to comment on the union's request. Even if the cooling-off period is declared Monday, it would bar strikes until Dec. 27 at the earliest.

The union's 15,000 members, including customer service and ramp workers, have been without a contract since July. Tiberi said the union has instructed workers to abide by the court's ruling.

''It is out of our control now,'' Tiberi said. ''We are abiding by the terms of the restraining order and we're aggressively telling members to stay within compliance of that order.''

For Northwest, the temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Judge David Doty in Minneapolis is meant to prevent work slowdowns by employees who are members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

''The only way the company can respond to a situation like this is with overtime,'' Northwest lawyer Tim Thornton said. ''Every mechanic in the system is refusing overtime. There's no other explanation for that other than a concerted job action.''

AMFA attorney Nicholas Ganath called Northwest's statistics ''unfounded voodoo,'' but said union leaders would abide by Doty's order, and ''keep the planes safe and on time for the holiday season.''

AMFA represents 9,500 members who have been seeking a new contract for more than four years. Northwest, the nation's fourth-largest carrier, said the two sides remain far apart on reaching a labor deal.


On the Net:

United: http://www.ual.com

Northwest: http://www.nwa.com

United machinists: http://www.iam141.org

National Mediation Board: http://www.nmb.gov


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