Four US major airlines are involved in difficult labour negotiations that could escalate into rolling strike threats throughout the year, despite President Bush's proposed intervention in Northwest Airlines' contract dispute with its mechanics union.

Hours after the National Mediation Board (NMB) released Northwest and the union from negotiations last month, setting in motion a 30-day cooling-off period, Bush made his intentions known. He said he would appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to help find a solution if the parties do not reach a settlement during the 30-day period, which ends on 12 March. This action would bar members of the 10,000-strong Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) from going on strike for 60 more days.

This action was recommended by the NMB. "The dispute between Northwest and AMFA is an extraordinary situation which has evaded resolution despite nearly 100 days of mediation," it says, adding that the dispute "threatens to deprive a substantial section of the country of essential transportation service". The mechanics' contract was amendable in October 1996.

Bush Administration officials say the White House was influenced by the NMB recommendation, but insist its planned action does not mean it will intervene in every airline labour dispute. President Bill Clinton appointed such an emergency panel in 1997 after pilots at American Airlines began a strike.

Other key negotiations involve Delta, United and American Airlines. Delta is in talks with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), whose contract became amendable in May 2000. The union, which represents 9,800 Delta pilots, is seeking to better the industry-leading wage package it achieved for United Airlines' pilots last year.

Delta and ALPA agreed to try to reach a settlement by 28 February, after which they would ask the NMB to proffer arbitration. If the NMB agrees and either side declines, a 30-day cooling-off period is envisaged. Delta pilots have voted to authorise a strike.

United is talking with the International Association of Machinists, which represent more than 15,000 employees working as mechanics and in related jobs. The NMB resumed mediation on this dispute in late January. The union also represents about 31,000 passenger service, ramp and stores workers at United which are in a separate set of negotiations.

American and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants are negotiating over a contract that was amendable in September 1998. Three months of mediated talks were recessed in December and are expected to be resumed. A strike vote by the 22,500 flight attendants is in progress.

Source: Airline Business