Federal Express Corp., used to dealing with customers who keep an eye on the clock, is facing its own deadline, 30 days to reach a collective bargaining agreement with its pilots' union or face the threat of a job action.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents approximately half of the company's 2,750 pilots, notified the National Mediation Board Tuesday evening that it had rejected an offer of binding arbitration from the agency.Under provisions of the Railway Labor Act, which regulates labor relations for the company, a 30-day cooling-off period follows rejection of arbitration. If the dispute remains unresolved after that period either side could initiate economic action against the other. The deadline for agreement is 12:01 EDT on Nov. 25.

"The Air Line Pilots Association will make every reasonable effort to settle this dispute through negotiations," said Joe DePete, chairman of the FedEx pilots' master executive council, a unit of ALPA. "We continue to hope that someone in management will realize that failure to immediately resolve this dispute on an equitable basis is in no one's interest, especially the customers of FedEx."

The NMB declared an impasse in the 17-month talks last Thursday, and offered the two sides binding arbitration. The pilots conditionally accepted that offer, but gave the company until Monday night to do likewise. Under the RLA, both sides' agreement is needed for binding arbitration to take place.

When the company failed to accept the offer Monday, the pilots said they had no choice but to reject the offer.

"Our deadline was our deadline," said Will Johnson, spokesman for the union. "What they (FedEx) did Monday was another attempt to use delay tactics to drag this out. It's what they've been doing for the last 17 to 18 months. To protect the interests of our pilots and keep this process rolling, we rejected arbitration."

Shirlee Clark, a spokeswoman for FedEx, disputed the union's claim that management was responsible for the cooling-off period.

"Regardless of how ALPA choses to characterize it, they clearly have been the one to choose to reject arbitration. We did not reject arbitration," she said.

She also repeated FedEx's hope that a settlement can be reached during the next 30 days.

"That's been our position from day one," she said.

The union was certified after a bruising organizing battle in June 1993, but the company continued to appeal that certification until the end of that year. Talks began in March 1994, and the NMB entered the process in January. The talks broke off on Oct. 12. No new talks have been set as of Wednesday morning.

The pilots contend that FedEx is seeking a concession contract that will require them to work more days to achieve the same pay level. The company says it is offering wage and benefit improvements, but that it needs productivity improvements.

Ms. Clark said the pilots make an average of $100,000 a year, plus overtime.