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United: Mechanics Stalling Flights

CHICAGO (AP) — United Airlines has canceled hundreds of flights so far this month because of what it claims are illegal, concerted job actions by mechanics whose contract negotiations are stalled.

A United spokesman said Wednesday that an average of 4 percent of its 2,300 daily flights have been canceled in November, twice the usual amount — an increase the carrier blames on mechanics causing jets to be pulled out of service for unneeded repairs and refusing to work overtime.

While the cancellation rate is far short of the chaos that ensnared the world's largest airline last summer during a contract standoff with pilots, it is a troubling development just ahead of the heavy holiday travel period. United is still scrambling to win back customers it lost in the earlier labor turmoil.

The mechanics' union has denied an organized job action is occurring, saying its members have been repeatedly advised not to participate in any such action and even encouraged to work overtime at the employee-owned airline.

Chief operating officer Andy Studdert accused the mechanics of causing the ``serious operational problems'' in a letter sent last Friday to Scotty Ford, chief negotiator for the union representing 44,000 United mechanics.

Their ``unlawful'' actions, he said, include ``submitting an excessive number of mechanical write-ups, making erroneous claims of missing equipment as well as failing to work overtime after they had earlier signed up to do so.''

``This behavior is very disruptive to our operations and is causing significantly increased numbers of delays and canceled flights,'' Studdert said, calling it a ``rapidly deteriorating situation.''

As with the pilots, whose refusal to work overtime caused United's packed daily flight schedule to collapse, the mechanics are entitled by federal law governing airline employees to individually turn down the extra work assignments.

Ford fired back an angry letter on Tuesday, saying he resented the airline's ``attempt to threaten and intimidate this union and its members during these negotiations.''

``He wants to put them on notice that they have responsibility for the frustration of United employees as they await their new agreement,'' said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the mechanics' union, the International Association of Machinists.

The mechanics, whose contract came up for renewal in July, are seeking raises similar to the average 24 percent wage hikes given pilots. Federally mediated talks are set to resume in Washington on Monday after breaking down twice this month.

``We recognize there's still work to be done,'' United spokesman Chris Brathwaite said Wednesday. ``We think that first step will continue on Monday.''

He said the carrier has managed to absorb much of the impact of the mechanics' actions as a result of lessons learned in the pilots' standoff, including increasing the number of spare aircraft to 25 from 12.

United has also trimmed its flight schedule by about 100 flights daily this fall.

Shares of United parent UAL Corp. were down 37.5 cents to close at $37.38 Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange.


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