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The user association mechanism specified by the IEEE 802.11 standard does not consider the channel conditions and the AP load in the association process. Employing the mechanism in its plain form in wireless mesh networks we may only achieve low throughput and low user transmission rates. In this paper we design a new association framework in order to provide optimal association and network performance. In this framework we propose a new channel-quality based user association mechanism inspired by the operation of the infrastructure-based WLANs. Besides, we enforce our framework by proposing an airtime-metric based association mechanism that is aware of the uplink and downlink channel conditions as well as the communication load. We then extend the functionality of this mechanism in a cross-layer manner taking into account information from the routing layer, in order to fit it in the operation of wireless mesh networks. Lastly, we design a hybrid association scheme that can be efficiently applied in real deployments to improve the network performance. We evaluate the performance of our system through simulations and we show that wireless mesh networks that use the proposed association mechanisms are more capable in meeting the needs of QoS-sensitive applications.