In the Air Again

THE Nov. 22 end to the five-day flight attendants' strike against American Airlines leaves only one unambiguous set of winners: the ticketholders who now have a brighter prospect of keeping to their Thanksgiving holiday plans.

The outlook is less clear for the other key players, particularly in a company still in the throes of adapting to deregulation and competition from small, low-cost carriers.

Flight attendants sought binding arbitration after a fruitless year of contract talks. Among their issues: an adequate pay raise after seeing real wages decline during the past decade; American's request that attendants pick up the cost of health-care benefits; and, less tangible, a need for more respect from the company.

American, which balked at arbitration, offered a more-modest pay package and sought changes in work rules to lower its costs. Chairman Robert Crandall maintains that the flight attendants' demands would cost the company an additional $500 million a year.

President Clinton was right to get the parties to accept an arbitrator. But his politics were clear, particularly after winning passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement over the opposition of organized labor, a traditionally Democratic constituency. At the least, we hope the arbitration process helps the two sides build a more productive relationship. The company needs more-flexible work rules to help lower costs. But the flight attendants deserve respect and a livable wage. It will take the best ideas that both sides can offer to help American Airlines adapt to the industry's changes with a minimum of hardship.

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