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America West Girds For Strike

A four-year dispute over wages was coming to a head Friday as America West Airlines prepared for a strike by its flight attendants that could begin in hours.

Unless an agreement is reached, flight attendants could strike as early as 12:01 a.m. ET Saturday, a minute after the end of a 30-day cooling-off period set by the National Mediation Board.

Contract talks resumed Friday morning in Washington D.C., after both sides took a break from discussions shortly after midnight, said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the flight attendants' union.

"It's a lot of hours to be talking. As long as they keep talking, I'm encouraged," Zack said.

The 2,300 attendants have been working without a contract since voting to unionize in 1994, three years after America West filed for bankruptcy protection and employees took pay cuts designed to help the company get back on its feet.

Since then, the company has become profitable, posting record earnings in 1997 and 1998.

About two-thirds of America West's flight attendants earn the top-scale salary of $23,800. Top-scale flight attendants at rival Southwest Airlines earn $41,200.

The flight attendants also want the same daily expenses as pilots receive, $1.80 an hour away from their base city. Currently, flight attendants get no per diem allowance.

Most passengers at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix were well aware of the looming strike.

"We saw this coming," said Laura de Leon, who was returning to San Jose Thursday with her husband Arnold and 10-month-old daughter Amelia.

Before booking their return flight, de Leon said she checked on an Internet Web site to make sure it wouldn't be affected by a possible strike.

"It turned out that we didn't have to change our flight, but we definitely made sure," she said.

But not everyone was aware of the strike threat.

Chuck Hemwall of New York was flying to Albuquerque Thursday and planned to travel back through Phoenix via America West next week. He said he hadn't heard anything about the flight attendants' dispute.

"I'll just take my chances. I'm sure something will happen by then. Really, I don't want to have to get involved," Hemwall said.

America West serves 53 domestic destinations overall and eight cities in Mexico and Canada. The nation's ninth-largest carrier has hubs in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio.

By JOLYN OKIMOTO

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