Fri, Mar 02, 2001 EST
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Delta and Pilots Request to be Released
From Federal Mediation

By Justin Bachman   Associated Press
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ATLANTA — Facing no imminent breakthrough in their contract negotiations, Delta and its pilots asked federal mediators to release them from contract talks.

Negotiators from the National Mediation Board did not immediately act upon the request, which would push the nation's third-biggest carrier a step closer to a possible strike.

The board is not compelled to accept the request, which Delta and the Air Line Pilots Association made late Wednesday in a joint letter, and could order both sides to keep talking.

Delta and its 9,800 pilots had agreed to ask the board for binding arbitration if the negotiations had not produced an agreement by Thursday.

If the board does offer arbitration, either Delta or the union is expected to reject it, leading to a 30-day "cooling-off" period. A strike could begin April 1, although the mediation board could order more negotiations throughout March.

A board spokesman declined to discuss specifics of the talks, citing a news "blackout" the agency has requested both parties observe.

The negotiations began in September 1999 with pilots seeking massive contract gains after several years of record company profits. Pilots contend that concessions they offered in their 1996 contract helped Delta restore its finances and reputation with the public.

The talks have intensified in recent months, although both sides concede they remain divided on issues such as salary, retirement benefits, flying limits on regional jets, retroactive pay and a lower wage system at Delta's low-cost affiliate, Delta Express.

The pilots have authorized ALPA to call a strike and have begun organizing strike centers in larger cities, but some union officials have said privately they expect President Bush might enter the fray to avoid travel disruptions.

The Delta talks are occurring as United and Northwest airlines are haggling with their mechanics over a new contract and American is negotiating a new deal with its flight attendants.

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