Labor Contract

America West Airlines flight attendants overwhelmingly approved a first-ever, $80 million labor contract that guarantees bigger paychecks over the next five years, union officials said Friday.

By a more than 4-1 margin, the 2,400-member Association of Flight Attendants gave the go-ahead to an accord that will grant across-the-board raises and a special $3.1 million signing bonus for mostly veteran workers at the nation\'s ninth-largest air carrier.

The deal, which came after more than four years of sometimes bitter negotiations, would raise salaries of senior attendants to $35,000 by the end of the contract from $24,000 currently.

Flight attendants also will receive travel expenses for the first time under the agreement, reached March 20 in Washington.

\'\'I think this sends the message that we fought the good fight and after 4-1/2 years we can agree that this is a fair contract,\'\' said Deanna Clarkson, a flight attendant spokeswoman. \'\'Do I think we deserve more? Of course. But
can we live with them. Yes.\'\'

Clarkson told Reuters that the first-ever union contract, negotiated well past a strike deadline last month, helps bring wages and benefits closer to those at other airlines, including low-cost competitor Southwest Airlines.

Under the agreement, flight attendants would see their pay eventually rise to $16.93 an hour and top out at $37.59. Currently, wages range from $14.18 to $24.41 an hour.

The top executive at the Tempe, Arizona-based company said he was pleased with the ratification of a contract that addresses the \'\'key concerns\'\' of both union and management.

\'\'This settlement assures that we can continue the airline\'s strategic and growth plans,\'\' William Franke, president and chief executive, said in a prepared statement.

Flight attendants had been without a contract as union and management officials went face-to-face in sometimes bitter contract negotiations during the last four years.

At stake was disruption of a carrier that carries just 3 percent of the nation\'s passengers, but is important in the West, with hubs in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio. America West serves more than 90 destinations in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The fight reached its peak in March when flight attendants threatened random, unannounced walkouts of flights if no deal could be reached. Company officials responding by threatening to shut down the airline if necessary.

But management and union negotiators were able to reach an agreement during 11th-hour talks that concluded hours past a deadline set by the National Mediation Board for when a strike could legally begin.