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American, pilots near deal on contract

Negotiators for American Airlines and its pilots have reached an agreement in principle in a contract dispute that threatened to shut down a major portion of the nation's air travel.

Capt. Michael Cronin, the pilot union's chief of legislative affairs, said Wednesday that negotiators still were working on details but that a proposal would be presented to the pilots union board Friday.

"The details are still being worked on as we speak, and we want our board of directors to hear it from negotiators and not from the press," Cronin said.

American Airlines spokesman Chris Chiames confirmed, "We have reached an agreement in principle."

Chiames also stressed that talks were continuing, and union officials cautioned that several details must be worked out before a proposal is submitted to the pilots' board.

Word of the proposal came as an emergency board sent President Clinton a report about the issues separating the pilots and the nation's largest domestic airline. The board was appointed by the president minutes after the pilots voted to strike last month.

In addition to wages, the dispute revolved around who will fly small jets that American plans to use to replace the turboprops now used on commuter flights.

The Allied Pilots Association insisted that its members fly the 70- to 100-seat jets. American's parent company, AMR Corp., wanted its lower-paid American Eagle pilots to move into jet cockpits.

After the presidential board finished discussions with both the union and the airlines, Cronin said, the board's chairman, Robert R. Harris, offered his services as a mediator.

Both sides accepted, and the agreement in principle was worked out during secluded meetings on Orcas Island, Wash., that ended Tuesday. Negotiators continued consultations by telephone, Cronin said.

"Principles have to be translated into words on paper that people can be held to," he said.

The aviators, who already are among the highest-paid workers in the nation, with average salaries of $120,000, and the airline have been negotiating since 1994.

Talks broke off, and shortly after midnight on Feb. 15, the pilots declared a strike that would have affected one in five U.S. air passengers.

But minutes later, Clinton signed his emergency order, setting up the board. The three-member panel evaluated arguments on both sides of the dispute and was prepared to recommend a settlement when the pilots announced tentative agreement.

On Wednesday, the board recommended pay raises totaling 6.5 percent through 2000. It also recommended that some restrictions be placed on Americans' use of regional jets.

"The board report is really not particularly important because it has been overtaken by events," Cronin said.

In a statement, Clinton said, "The best resolution is a negotiated settlement acceptable to both sides of this dispute."

The Allied Pilots Association represents about 9,300 American Airlines pilots.