Story updated with numbers by base and company comment.



) - Another piece fell into place Thursday for the merger of

US Airways





, as US Airways flight attendants voted overwhelmingly, in the third election on a tentative contract agreement, to ratify.

The Association of Flight Attendants said 80% of those who voted backed the agreement. Unlike the two previous tentative contract agreements, this one specified the amount for flight attendant buyouts - it is $40,000 - and provides a signing bonus of $1,700, which partially compensates flight attendants for the delay in contract approval. The contract takes effect March 2.

AFA said 86% of 6,614 ligible members voted. The Phoenix base was the biggest backer of the contract with 86% support from its 1,945 voters. In Philadelphia, 82% of 1,723 voters were in favor of the contract, while in Washington 77% of 290 voters were in favor. In Charlotte, which has been the center of opposition to the contract, 71% of 1,728 voters were in favor.

The two groups of flight attendants from US Airways and America West have been working under separate contracts since a 2005 merger.

"A few months ago few thought we could reach an agreement with improvements prior to any new merger." said Roger Holmin, president of the Charlotte AFA local and Deborah Volpe, president of the Phoenix local, in a letter to members. "Your determination and support for our union made it possible to get management back to the table through mediation overseen by the National Mediation Board."

"We now have industry-leading scope and working conditions for all US Airways flight attendants with pay that lifts the industry standard rather than holding it down," they added. "Our new contract gives hope to American flight attendants who have been forced to shoulder repeated concessions over the past 10 years. Not only will we be at the table for merger discussions, we are bringing more to the table, which gives us real leverage.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker thanked union leaders and the National Mediation Board for their work on reaching an agreement. "This merger will create a stronger company, with the path to improved compensation and benefits and greater long-term opportunities for all our employees," Parker said, in a prepared statement. "We are grateful to have the support of both companies' unions and thank them and their leaders for their hard work and vision."

Within 30 days, negotiations regarding protocols for a merged airline will begin. The talks will involve four parties: AFA; the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American flight attendants, and the two airlines.

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-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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Ted Reed