Alaska Airlines has given about 500 baggage handlers a cryptic reprieve from its earlier ultimatum that they could be laid off and replaced...

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Alaska Airlines has given about 500 baggage handlers a cryptic reprieve from its earlier ultimatum that they could be laid off and replaced March 28 if a cost-cutting agreement were not reached.

Union officials took little solace from a company e-mail last week that said “there are no plans to furlough employees on March 28.”

“It means they’re not going to do it on the 28th,” said Nan Otto, a union representative for the baggage handlers, “but not necessarily that it won’t happen on the 29th, 30th, 31st or on April Fools’.”

Otto said talks between the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and the airline last week were the most productive to date, and the union offered a proposal to which Alaska plans to respond this week. The next discussions are scheduled for March 28 to 31.

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An airline spokeswoman declined to discuss the negotiations.

In January, the company postponed until March 28 a deadline for deciding whether to outsource the baggage-handling work in Seattle and lay off its baggage handlers here.

Last month, Alaska informed the IAM that it had reached an outsourcing agreement with Menzies Aviation Group that would save the airline more than $13 million a year.

The union’s proposal would save the airline less than that amount through wage and work-rule changes, Otto said, without giving specifics.

“They did not accept it, but said they appreciated the dialogue,” she said.

Alaska also needs to reach contract agreements with several other unions as part of an effort to slash costs by $340 million.

An arbitration board’s binding decision regarding contract terms for Alaska’s pilots is expected by April 30, to become effective the next day.

The airline is in mediation with its flight-attendants union, with the next session scheduled for mid-April. The company had planned to move 348 flight attendants based in Portland to other locations, but their union negotiated a deal last month to keep about 150 flight attendants based in Portland.

Alaska management also is in negotiations with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. The airline laid off more than 600 maintenance and other AMFA workers in late 2004.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com