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Union, USAir settle dispute

USAir plans to resume a full schedule of flights Monday if striking machinists ratify a new contract over the weekend.

The airline and its machinists union tentatively agreed on the contract Thursday morning after a marathon 24-hour session. Union officials urged members to approve the contract, saying it would help USAir return to profitability but still protect union jobs.

Leaders of the International Association of Machinists predicted overwhelming approval by members, who will vote on the contract Saturday and probably return to work Sunday.

"We made our point and we came out ahead," said David Supplee, chairman of the union's USAir committee in Tampa. "We didn't sell ourselves away, but the company still got concessions they were looking for. We're just elated to be able to go back to work."

The four-day strike cut USAir's jet schedule by 40 percent and disrupted travel schedules for thousands of passengers. As the strike wore on, many passengers flocked to other airlines to avoid delays and canceled flights on USAir.

The airline plans to continue its strike schedule _ operating 29 of 49 daily jet departures from Tampa _ through Sunday. USAir is the dominant carrier at Tampa International Airport.

To lure passengers back, the Arlington, Va.-based airline quickly announced a "Welcome Back Bonus" for members of its Frequent Traveler Program. Passengers on any North American flight in the next week will get a onetime bonus of 6,000 miles _ half the mileage required for a free round-trip ticket. Flights on USAir Express, the airline's feeder service, do not qualify.

The main sticking point in the strike had been proposed rules that would allow lower-paid employees to perform the duties of parking and pushing back aircraft at the gate. Supplee said the new agreement was a compromise that would allow lower-paid workers to help with those tasks, but mechanics would still operate the tractors that move the planes. The contract also guarantees that mechanics will not lose their jobs because of the change, he said.

The new agreement also reduces mechanics' pay cuts by 50 percent. Instead of reducing salaries by $2,000 per year, they will now be reduced by about $1,000, Supplee said. The mechanics earn $45,000-$48,000 per year.

The proposal also has a provision that could restore the money lost in the pay cut and possibly add an extra $1,000 if the airline becomes profitable, Supplee said.

Analysts had said a quick settlement was vital for USAir because it has been facing millions of dollars in losses from the recession and summer fare war.

Kevin Murphy, an airline analyst with Morgan Stanley, said USAir fared well with the settlement.

"It sounds like it was worth it from management's standpoint to incur a little bit of pain for four days," he said.

Andrew Nocella, an analyst with Avmark, an airline consulting company, said there probably won't be any permanent damage to USAir's reputation.

"People have booked away from them for the last couple of days, but I don't believe there will be a long-term effect," he said. Once passengers are sure the airline is again dependable, USAir "will be fine."

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