Five days of contract negotiations between American Airlines and its flight attendants ended Wednesday with no deal, and union leaders said they would discuss setting a strike vote this weekend.
Leaders of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants accused the airline of "walking out" of the talks in Washington. Airline managers denied it.
The union, representing 18,000 American flight attendants, announced it would seek to be released from mediation, a move that would trigger a 30-day cooling-off period and start the clock ticking toward a possible strike.
"The conduct is just another demonstration of the company's bad-faith bargaining," said a statement issued Wednesday evening by APFA President Laura Glading. "We have exhausted all of our options and will now meet with our board this weekend to move forward with the balloting of the membership for a strike vote."
Airline managers painted a much different picture of how the talks ended.
"The notion that we walked out is categorically untrue," said American spokeswoman Missy Latham. "In fact, American Airlines negotiators are still in Washington, D.C. This round of talks was always scheduled to conclude at the end of business Wednesday."
The airline said the mediator could schedule a new round of talks soon.
"(We) look forward to continuing to bargain when the mediator establishes the next set of dates," Latham said.
The issues still unresolved include basics such as pay, benefits and productivity.
The union insists its workers must be paid more to make up for salary cuts that employees accepted in 2002 to help keep the airline out of bankruptcy. Management insists any pay increase must be tied to increased work hours.
In a sign the airline is taking the possibility of a strike seriously, American management has sought advice from the Federal Aviation Administration in recent days, asking what it would take to train replacement flight attendants. The airline used a similar plan the last time the flight attendants walked out in 1993.
FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford declined to comment on details of the agency's discussions with American.
"As with all labor situations, we stay in close contact with the airlines and consult as needed," Lunsford said.
Other unions and other airlines will be watching the outcome of the talks closely. Observers are eager to see how the Obama administration would respond to the threat of a strike in the airline industry.
American Airlines pilots and ground workers are also in federal mediation with the company. Other airlines, including United, Continental, Spirit, and US Airways are also involved in ongoing talks with various unions.