The threat of an American Airlines flight attendants strike during Thanksgiving triggered anxiety among holiday travelers Monday and prompted some to book flights on other carriers.
Many travel agents reported a flurry of customer calls after labor talks between American--the nation's second-largest airline--and its 21,000-member flight attendants union broke down over the weekend as both sides clashed over wages and work rules. The Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants said it will strike on or before Nov. 22 if no agreement is reached.
Although most customers merely wanted more information, some asked to be booked "on other carriers to avoid the possibility of getting stranded," said Jim M. Roberts, president of Uniglobe Regency Travel in Rancho Cucamonga. "People don't want to gamble over Thanksgiving."
On Monday, union officials said they will meet with members throughout the week to see how much support exists for staging a strike earlier than Nov. 22. Under federal regulations, a commercial airliner cannot fly unless there is at least one qualified flight attendant for every 50 passenger seats.
American spokesman Al Comeaux said that in the face of a strike, the airline plans to continue operating with flight attendants who cross the picket lines. Managers and other workers are being trained to assist flight attendants with in-flight food service, he said.
Tickets on American and competing carriers are still available during the holiday, particularly on Thanksgiving Day and the following Saturday, travel agents said.
However, American passengers who try to book flights on other carriers will face high fares and a limited supply of seats. During that week, more than 9 million people will jam into airports and airplanes across the United States, according to the Air Transport Assn., an airline industry trade group. About 80% of all available airline seats will be occupied on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day and the following Sunday.
"There are options, but there is no question that it's going to be difficult," said Greg Witter, a spokesman for Alaska Airlines. As for discounted airline seats on popular routes, "the vast majority of those are gone."
American would not say whether it would reimburse passengers forced to travel on other carriers.
Most airlines would be expected to honor American's tickets and try to accommodate travelers whose flights have been canceled because of a labor dispute, travel agents said. However, passengers would probably have to fly standby, and some carriers may refuse to accept frequent-flier tickets.
David Spittell of San Dimas had already paid American Airlines $506 for a non-refundable round-trip ticket to Savannah, Ga. But Monday, with no discount deals available, he reserved a one-way ticket to Savannah on Delta Air Lines for $652--just in case.
"I know it's going to be a nightmare," Spittell, a 27-year-old mortgage underwriter, said of a flight attendants strike. But "I'm going to find a way out there."