The US air transport industry is facing a winter of growing discontent as the country's five largest carriers struggle to reach new labour contracts with airline pilots, attendants, mechanics and ancillary workers, to avert major travel disruption over the traditionally busy Christmas and New Year holiday season.

Labour unions representing more than 60,000 US airline employees are currently seeking either to open negotiations, or are in talks or mediation with the management of several airlines, including American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines. Many have already engaged in unofficial industrial action and forced a cutback in services.

Delta Air Lines is the latest US carrier to seek court action to restrain some of its 9,400 pilots from inciting others to refuse overtime. Delta chief executive, Leo Mullin, claims that there has been an 80% drop in pilot acceptance of overtime, forcing the carrier to shed 125 flights per day, representing some 2% of scheduled services.

Both sides have sought federal mediation after months of inconclusive contract negotiations. Under the US Railway Labour Act, union members are prevented from taking industrial action until the mediator declares an impasse, and only after a 30-day cooling off period has elapsed.

Delta has sought legal action in order to protect flights over the US holiday season. United and Northwest have been granted similar court orders in recent weeks to restrain their respective ground staff. A clear catalyst for the current situation is United Airlines' recent settlement with its pilots. This secured a 22.5 - 28.5% backdated payrise, after a five-month dispute that cost the carrier $450 million.

This has now set a bench mark for the following:

• United is struggling to reach a deal with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, representing 15,000 personnel. Prior to its recent court action, the airline had been forced to cancel 100 flights a day.

• Northwest may seek up to $100 million in damages from the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, representing 9,500 mechanics and cleaners, after a "go slow" over protracted contract talks forced the cancellation of 431 flights. The airline has also agreed to open talks on a new contract with its pilots within six months.

• American is facing the prospect of its 23,000 flight attendants walking out after wage talks with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants broke down. The union is considering asking mediators to declare an impasse.

• Continental has reluctantly opened new contract talks nine months early with the 4,000-strong Independent Association of Continental Pilots, which claims the latest wage deal will leave its pilots 62% below par.

Source: Flight International