Eastern Airlines has renewed calls for federal mediators to declare an impasse in contract talks with its machinists union, after 98 percent of the union's voting members rejected the carrier's latest cost-cutting contract offer.

"The predictable defeat of the contract proposal . . . should send another strong message to the National Mediation Board that the two parties are at an impasse," said Tom Matthews, senior Eastern vice president of human resources."The board must act quickly to release the parties from dead-end mediation to resolve these issues," he said. Contract talks began nine months ago.

The union vote tallied Wednesday showed 81 percent of the union's 9,500 mechanics and ground-support workers cast ballots, with 98 percent voting "no," and 90 ballots in favor of the proposal that local President Charles Bryan says would slash pay in half.

Eastern has lost about $1 billion in the past decade and posted a second-quarter loss of $89.8 million. The company says the $161 million in wage concessions it seeks represent pay cuts of 10 to 20 percent.

An impasse could be declared if federal mediator Harry Bickford told the board he could do no more. If the board agreed, both parties would have a chance for arbitration. If either party declined, that would begin a 30-day cooling off period, after which the union would become free to strike and Eastern could impose its conditions unilaterally.

Bryan, who expects negotiations to resume soon, said Eastern's offer was unacceptable because it would cut pay, sick days, vacation time and medical benefits.