The White House said on Tuesday that President Bush was prepared to use his authority to avert any strike by mechanics at UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, warning a work stoppage during the holiday season could further harm the U.S. economy.

"The president is deeply concerned, especially at this time of year, about any disruption in airline service to the traveling public," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. "He's also concerned about any negative impact a strike could have on the economy." 

Fleischer said Bush is prepared to "do whatever it takes" to protect air travelers during the holidays. The earliest a strike by mechanics could begin would be just before Christmas. 

The latest demonstration of resolve by the Bush administration to not permit airline strikes occurred at the height of economic distress for big airlines. 

It is the first industry standoff between labor and management since the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Industry losses have mounted as major carriers, buffeted by turbulent economic times and shaky public confidence in air travel, struggle to regain their financial footing since the hijack attacks on New York and Washington. 

Industry Weakness 

Stung by a sharp decline in business and leisure travel and overall economic weakness, United is losing $15 million per day. It accounted for roughly half of the $2.46 billion in net losses reported by the top eight U.S. carriers for the latest quarter. 

"The message has been sent to both sides to get to the table and settle," said aviation industry consultant Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group. "It won't be easy. United gave a lot away to its pilots." 

The mechanics are looking for a deal similar to what United pilots and other major unions received in the past year, especially the mechanics at Northwest Airlines. 

United pilots set a new standard for labor contracts when they ratified a deal in October 2000 that gave them raises of between 21 percent and 28 percent. 

The Northwest mechanics won a 24 percent increase earlier this year followed by pilots at Delta Air Lines, who got between 24 and 39 percent over the life of their five-year deal. Delta pilots and Northwest mechanics are the highest paid in their fields. 

Despite complaints from labor that he was interfering in the bargaining process, Bush has intervened or threatened to intervene three times this year. He prevented a strike by the Northwest mechanics and facilitated settlements for the Delta pilots and flight attendants at AMR. Corp.'s American Airlines. 

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, representing 15,000 United mechanics, rejected an arbitration offer on Monday from the National Mediation Board. The offer sought to end 23 months of talks over a new contract. 

Cooling Off Period 

The company and the mechanics enter a 30-day cooling off period later this week, but no additional negotiations have been scheduled to try and avert a possible walkout, the mechanics union said. 

Without action by Bush to delay any job action for up to 60 days, the mechanics would be free to strike at the end of that cooling off period. 

No strike date has been set. 

Mediators have recommended that Bush create a Presidential Emergency Board at the end of the cooling off period. That entity would be the tool Bush would use to prevent a walkout on economic grounds. 

"Hopefully during that 30-day period the parties themselves will enter into an agreement," Fleischer said. 

"We welcome the president's commitment to protect the traveling public," United spokesman Andy Plews said. "Yesterday, we took the step of reassuring our customers that they should book with confidence, because we don't expect that this situation will lead to any disruption of our schedule." 

United has been in talks with the mechanics since December 1999. Union officials say negotiations have stalled mainly over wages and pensions. 

Airline contracts are covered under the federal Railway Labor Act.