Machinists, USAir talking through federal mediators


USAir and striking Machinists resumed talks through federal mediators yesterday as thousands of passengers continued juggling their vacation and business plans to contend with the walkout, now in its fourth day.

No progress was reported in the talks, which were taking place in different rooms in Washington, with federal mediators shuttling between them. Since the walkout by the 8,300-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers began early Monday, the two sides stayed in touch only by telephone through federal mediator Harry Bickford.

The talks were expected to continue through the night and into this morning.

"He [Mr. Bickford] told them he wants this thing settled," said Vince Mula, chairman of Local 368, which represents the 115 USAir machinists based in South Florida, the Knight-Ridder News Service reported yesterday.

The striking Machinists and USAir -- the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- have apparently been deadlocked over work-rule changes sought by the financially troubled company.

The airline said it continued operating about 60 percent of its 2,700 jet flights yesterday. That percentage, however, is far smaller at BWI, where jet service has been reduced to 20 percent -- or 17 out of 90 flights -- of those normally scheduled.

The company's 2,000 commuter and express flights -- including 110 at BWI -- are not affected by the walkout.

For some passengers, the impact of the strike at the nation's sixth-largest airline has been minimal. But for many others, it has meant logistical problems and lengthy delays.

At BWI yesterday, Ted Leonard, a Providence, R.I., automobile dealer, waited to board a flight home after spending the weekend in Baltimore on business. He was joined in line by the Collison family from Westminster, who were flying to San Francisco for a vacation.

Because of the strike, both Mr. Leonard and the Collisons had been rerouted through Philadelphia, with the first leg of their trip leaving BWI at 3:45 p.m. via a 36-passenger commuter propeller plane, instead of the jet they originally booked.

Despite the 3,000-mile difference in destinations, both parties were to arrive shortly after 8:30 last night.

"I've got a 5 1/2 -hour journey for a one-hour trip," said Mr. Leonard, who faced a long layover in Philadelphia, instead of flying non-stop from Baltimore to Providence. "The ironic part is the Collisons will get to San Francisco the same time," he said.

Lines at USAir counters remained short yesterday and traffic moved smoothly through the airport complex.

"It's amazing how USAir is getting people out of here. Other airlines are very cooperative," said Carol Riley, a spokeswoman for BWI.

Generally, passengers holding USAir tickets have been urged to call the airline at (800) 428-4322 or work through their travel agent to determine if their flights have been canceled.

"In most cases, we have been able to get passengers on another USAir flight," said Larry Pickett, a spokesman for USAir in Charlotte, N.C. "What we've been trying to do with this strike schedule is maintain a level of service to all cities that we fly out of."

Passengers with USAir tickets may also re-book directly with another domestic airline, depending on availability.

Passengers holding unrestricted USAir tickets are generally in the best position to switch. Those who hold restricted tickets, such as requiring a 14-day advance purchase and non-refundable, might have to rely on the availability of a similarly priced seat on another airline.

"We're accepting USAir tickets and we don't charge an extra fee, like $25, for changing the ticket," said Laura Hurd, a spokeswoman for American Airlines.

Yesterday, American said it would extend until tomorrow the deadline it had set for passengers to fly with them on re-booked USAir tickets.

"Obviously, if the strike goes on, we'll extend it again," Ms. Hurd said. The Fort Worth-based airline operates 20 non-stop flights a day atBWI.

As one cost of the strike, USAir must reimburse its competitors for accepting tickets from USAir passengers. The airline is also paying its pilots and attendants their regular salaries even if their flights were canceled by the strike.

Striking Machinists continued picketing in front of the terminal at BWI. Despite company assurances to the contrary, the Machinists insist that work-rule changes would mean a loss of jobs as the airline shifts non-unionized, lower-paid workers into jobs currently performed by Machinists.

The airline, which has lost $675 million during the past two years, received concessions from its 5,500-member pilots union earlier this year. But Machinists say the company's latest offer would place a heavier burden on them than other employees.

The airline has yet to reach a contract with its flight attendants.

"The whole issue is job security," said Machinist Paul Allen, who walked the picket line yesterday. "It has to be pretty bad for us to be out here."

Meanwhile, a federal court hearing to determine whether USAir's flight attendants can honor the picket lines of striking Machinists was postponed from today until Oct. 19, keeping the attendants on the job as the strike continues.

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