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USAir cancels flights as union begins strike

USAir's machinists went on strike Monday, forcing the airline to cancel nearly half its Tampa jet flights and disrupting travel plans throughout the nation for thousands of passengers.

The airline used managers to replace many of the missing employees and operated about 60 percent of its flights nationwide. USAir Express flights _ which link smaller cities with jets at major airports _ were not affected.

Union members at Tampa International Airport on Monday said the dispute centered on job security. They say work rules in the company's proposal could lead to the elimination of hundreds of mechanic jobs.

Flight attendants voted to honor the picket lines, but Monday night a federal judge ordered them to report to work. The airline's pilots said they would continue to work.

Thousands of passengers were forced to change travel plans. Some switched to different USAir flights, often adding three hours or more to their trips. Others switched to different airlines that were accepting USAir tickets.

Some passengers got no warning about the strike and showed up at Tampa International to find their flights had been canceled.

"It's very aggravating," said David Scarfo, a bail bondsman returning to his Meriden, Conn., home after a vacation in Clearwater. His 3:30 p.m. flight was canceled. The next available flight was 2{ hours later.

"This is the first time I've flown USAir," he said, "and it'll probably be the last."

Others took the changes in stride, saying they were able to juggle their plans. After years of turmoil in the airline industry, many passengers have grown accustomed to sudden changes.

USAir has "been very accommodating," said Laura Donlan, a supermarket bookkeeper returning to her Connecticut home after vacationing in the Tampa Bay area.

Arnie Goldin, a loss control representative for a Tampa insurance company, took an earlier flight to Newark instead of one that had been canceled. But he wasn't sure if he'd get back to Tampa today.

"I'm kind of worried about the return flight," Goldin said. "I don't want to get stuck there."

The union went on strike Monday morning after negotiators for both sides were unable to agree on a contract. The two sides are still in contact with federal mediators and may meet again this week, the airline said.

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents 8,300 USAir mechanics and cleaners, said they have accepted the company's proposal for wage cutbacks, which are similar to a plan already approved by the pilot's union. Those cuts would mean a mechanic earning $45,000-$48,000 per year would face a cut of $2,000, the union said. The salary would return to the original level one year later.

The major disagreement has been over work rules, union members said. USAir wants to use lower-paid workers to push jets to and from gates.

"They are trying to get rid of the mechanics at as many stations as they can," said Bob Tyburski, a 29-year mechanic walking the picket line at Tampa International on Monday.

But USAir spokesman William Kress said the company has promised there would be no layoffs because of that change.

Union members also have complained that USAir's tough bargaining stance results from British Airways' proposed investment in the airline. British Airways has a reputation as a tough labor negotiator and has used wage cuts of its own to trim costs. But USAir officials have said the suggestion that British Airways is involved is incorrect.

Airline analysts said the strike comes at a bad time for USAir, which is facing millions of dollars in losses from the recession and the summer fare wars.

"The company can ill afford to take this kind of strike," said Kevin Murphy, airline analyst at Morgan Stanley. "If the strike lasts for a month . . . British Airways could view the company as damaged goods."

The effect on travelers varied widely from city to city. Tampa _ where USAir is the dominant carrier _ seemed to be hurt more than most. Twenty-four of its 50 jet departures were canceled. But USAir has a small presence in many other cities, so passengers in those cities had a wider choice of alternate flights on other airlines.

There was little effect on flights between Florida cities, USAir said. Nearly all Florida's intrastate jet flights and all USAir Express service continued to operate.

The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 9,000 USAir employees, said the leaders of its USAir group had voted to honor the strike, but U.S. District Judge Timothy Lewis ordered them to keep working.

"It should be plain that the public interest is best served by issuing the requested order, in order to avoid passenger disruption," Lewis said in his ruling.

A complete strike by the attendants could have a serious effect, because it could be difficult for the airline to find enough trained workers to replace them.

About 95 percent of flight attendants reported for work Monday, said Susan Young, a USAir spokeswoman.

The airline's pilots said they would continue to work.

USAir recommends peoplewith tickets for flights today call the airline at (800) 428-4322 several hours before a flight to see if itis canceled.

Kress said, "We're hoping that we can gradually increase service over the next few days."

David Supplee, a member of the union in Tampa, said the members are "hoping and praying for an early settlement. But they also want an agreement they can live with."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.