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United, pilots step up contract talks

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CHICAGO — Contract negotiations between United Airlines and its pilots are intensifying as the two sides push for an agreement within the next few days that both hope will end months of turmoil at the world's largest airline.

A pilots' spokesman said Friday that the two sides would meet "late into the night" for a fourth straight day as they try to settle the dispute by Labor Day or sooner.

But spokesman Herb Hunter said it didn't appear they would be able to bridge their final differences by day's end Friday, as federal officials had urged them earlier this month.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who spoke to both sides earlier in the week, said Thursday that talks are "progressing well" and appear on track to be settled by Labor Day — Sept. 4.

Daylong talks were held Friday at a suburban Chicago hotel under the guidance of the chief of staff of the National Mediation Board. United refused to discuss the status of negotiations but confirmed that Chief Executive Officer James Goodwin and three other top executives of UAL, United's parent firm, had joined the talks this week.

The main issues left are job security and pay.

Hunter said the pilots were cautiously optimistic about reaching a settlement but the talks "could blow up at a moment's notice."

United is anxious to end the turmoil after a disastrous summer that has resulted in thousands of flight cancellations and an abysmal on-time record, sullying its reputation with passengers and dragging its stock lower.

Goodwin was quoted by The Wall Street Journal on Friday as saying "the spirit at the table is very positive" and "we know we will get an agreement."

The remarks appeared to be aimed at skeptical investors, as the airline said Goodwin was not speaking to other media. On Friday, shares of UAL rose $2.187, or 5 percent, to close at $50.375 on the New York Stock Exchange.

United also is issuing the latest of a series of public apologies over its poor performance.

In a 30-second commercial that began airing Thursday on four cable television channels and in seven U.S. markets, Goodwin tells customers that the airline has failed in its commitment.

"This summer, thousands of people had their travel plans disrupted while flying United Airlines. If you were one of them, I want to apologize personally on behalf of United," Goodwin says from the cabin of a parked United jet.

"To deal with the problem, we're reducing our flight schedule, so we don't make promises we can't keep," he says.

United's labor problems began causing serious disruptions this spring after the contract with its 10,000 pilots came up for renewal. Pilots began refusing to fly overtime, which they are entitled to do, and that caused chaos with United's already-tight schedule in busy U.S. skies.

The pilots say the airline has long failed to hire enough pilots to carry out a packed schedule.

United separately is negotiating with its 15,000 mechanics, whose contract also is up.

The machinists' union recently said progress had been made toward a settlement. But the status of talks is now in question because of this week's decision by United to declare an emergency at some airports to force mechanics to work overtime.

Facing a threat by the machinists to stop negotiating if the airline didn't back down, United said Friday it would limit the amount of mandatory overtime. It said only mechanics in Chicago, Los Angeles and Indianapolis were working extra overtime.

"Obviously we don't want to resort to mandatory overtime," United spokesman Joe Hopkins said. "But if there are planes out of service, it's something that we have to do."

The airline reported that 84 of its 2,400 flights had been canceled by mid-afternoon Friday. That's down from the daily average of 199 this month but well short of the company's own goals.

On the Net: United site: www.united.com