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COMAIR, pilots union agree to return to negotiations

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Comair and its striking pilots agreed Friday to return to the bargaining table in hopes of resolving a 2-month-old strike that has shut down the nation's second-largest regional airline.

The agreement to resume negotiations was announced after airline officials and leaders of Comair's Air Line Pilots Association met with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Union officials were in Mineta's office for 3 1/2 hours, and Comair executives joined an hour into the meeting.

Negotiations will resume Tuesday, with federal mediators, and both sides agreed to try to reach an accord within 72 hours.

``The parties have given me their firm assurance that they will leave no stone unturned to reach an equitable agreement,'' Mineta said.

Union officials would not comment as they left the meeting. Comair executives also would not discuss the meeting.

Comair President Randy Rademacher said, ``I am not going to talk about any of this.''

But Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he hopes a settlement can be reached ``based on the atmosphere of today's meeting.'' He did not sit in on discussions but was summoned by Mineta as the meeting ended.

``It was a very positive airing of differences, a candid discussion,'' Portman said.

Pilots walked off the job March 26. The two sides have not met since May 12, when the pilots overwhelmingly rejected a settlement proposed by the National Mediation Board.

Spokesmen for the airline's 1,350 pilots said the board's proposal does not meet the union's demands for a company-paid retirement program, higher salaries, shorter on-duty shifts and longer rest intervals between work shifts.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, business leaders and other lawmakers had asked Mineta to intercede, citing the ``adverse effect'' that the strike was having on southwestern Ohio.

``I am very encouraged by the genuine progress in the Comair talks,'' Taft said Friday. ``I thank Secretary Mineta for his hands-on leadership in helping to bring the parties together, and for promptly answering our request for his personal involvement.''

The strike is the first for an airline since 1998. Mineta was instrumental in helping to avert a strike by Delta pilots, who negotiated a new contract in April. He also played an important behind-the-scenes role when President Bush blocked a strike by Northwest mechanics, who later settled with the airline.

Comair, based at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, has been shut down since the strike began. The regional airline also operated a flight hub in Orlando, Fla.

Delta-owned Comair had been the nation's second-largest regional airline behind American Eagle, carrying an average of 25,000 passengers a day. Since the walkout began, the airline has laid off 2,400 of its 4,000 nonstriking employees, eliminated 400 pilot positions, sold some aircraft and deferred capital projects.

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