SEATTLE (AP) – The Boeing Co. and its Machinists union have reached a tentative contract agreement, which if approved would end a three-week strike that shut down the company’s airplane production.

Connie Kelliher, a spokeswoman for Machinists District Lodge 751 in Seattle, confirmed the agreement yesterday and said details would be released later that evening.

About 18,400 Machinists who assemble Boeing’s commercial airplanes and some key components walked off the job on Sept. 2, forcing the Chicago-based company to immediately stop its airplane production.

Boeing Chief Financial Officer James Bell had earlier said the strike could result in more than two dozen airplanes not reaching customers this month, although analysts said a strike lasting a month or less would likely not result in serious problems for Boeing.

The two sides have been far apart on issues including monthly pension payouts and health care premiums. Before striking, machinists in the Puget Sound area, Gresham, Ore., and Wichita, Kan., overwhelmingly rejected a three-year contract proposal their leaders had called “insulting.”

The workers are paid an average of $59,000 a year.

Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers could not immediately be reached for comment yesterday, but earlier in the day he confirmed that negotiations had resumed.

The strike came as Boeing’s commercial airplane business, which had sagged under the weight of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a weak U.S. economy, started to improve.

Boeing had racked up 529 orders through the end of July, compared with 299 orders for rival Airbus SAS.

Airbus is ahead on deliveries so far this year, with 216 planes as of the end of July, compared with 179 for Boeing. Boeing expects to deliver 320 airplanes this year, and Airbus expects to deliver 360.

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