DALLAS: American Airlines pilots are preparing to stage a walkout if their contract demands are not met. The dispute, which could throw American Airlines into the grips of a full-scale strike by February 15, comes only a few months after the union and the company appeared to have reached a period of détente. A tentative agreement was reached in September of 1996, after 2 years of hard-fought negotiations that had stalled the growth of the airline, forcing it to hold back on the purchase of 103 planes, worth $6.6 billion. In September, it seemed that American would finally be able to proceed with its long-forestalled expansion plans, but the recent flare up has thrown those plans into doubt. Earlier this month, the union rejected a contract offered by the company that would have provided them with a 3 percent pay increase this year, and 2 percent in 1999, a shade below the union demands for a pay increase of 3 percent each year until 1999 and 2 percent in 2000. Members of the Allied Pilots Association began informational picketing in cities across the nation today, including Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C., Newark, and American's headquarters in Dallas-Fort Worth. TIME business writer John Greenwald reports that even the threat of shrinking operations may not be enough to move the company to deal-making. "American Airlines Chief Executive Robert L. Crandall is an extremely tough boss," Greenwald notes. Crandall, a known hardliner, has been known to berate his pilots publicly in the past. "His relations with his unions have not been good," Greenwald said. "I think he's likely to hang tough."