As anxious passengers and travel agents made contingency plans, American Airlines and its flight attendants Wednesday held last-minute labor negotiations to prevent a strike today against the nation's second-largest carrier.
In their second day of renewed talks, negotiators for Dallas-based American and the Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants were reportedly down to a few divisive issues involving pay, work rules and staffing levels. Earlier talks broke down last month, with the flight attendants vowing to strike and the airline imposing some of its proposed contract terms.
If this week's federally mediated talks in New Orleans fail to produce an agreement, the 21,000-member union says, its members will not work on any American flights departing today after 4 a.m. PST. As of Wednesday evening, no agreement had been announced.
American, which has more than 2,500 daily departures, said it would keep operating in the face of a strike, relying on union members who cross picket lines and other workers who have been trained to assist flight attendants with meal service. However, under federal safety regulations, a commercial airplane cannot fly without at least one qualified flight attendant for every 50 seats.
"We will do whatever we need to do to get our customers to their destination," American spokesman Al Becker said.
Most travel agents said they expect the negotiators to reach an agreement but that if talks do fail, American will be able to keep most flights operating. However, agents were not taking any chances; they were booking and purchasing tickets on other airlines and advising customers about alternatives should they be stranded.
In past labor disputes, most major carriers have tried to accommodate ticket holders whose flights have been canceled. But that policy varies by airline and by the availability of seats, which will be in increasingly short supply as the busy Thanksgiving holiday approaches.
"It's difficult this time of year to find alternatives," said Jay Anderson of USTravel in Orange. "It's more difficult in Orange County because American has a larger presence" than at other regional airports.
USAir, Northwest, America West and Trans World Airlines said they will accommodate American passengers whose flights are canceled. But Delta said it would honor only full-fare, refundable tickets unless it reached an agreement with American over other types of tickets. Continental said it would not accept tickets earned through American's frequent-flier program. United said it will not comment unless a strike actually begins.
Northwest also said it may substitute larger aircraft and increase the number of flights on some routes in case a strike results in increased passenger traffic, said spokesman James Faulkner.
Uniglobe Regency Travel in Rancho Cucamonga has given American passengers a list of alternative carriers and flights should they face cancellation. "What we are trying to do is arm them with information," said agency President Jim M. Roberts.
If a flight is canceled, agents advise, customers should call the agents to book other seats instead of waiting in long lines at American ticket counters.
"The alternatives might be sold out by the time they get to the front of the line," said Charles Roumas, vice president of marketing for Travel One in Philadelphia.
One travel manager for a Los Angeles-area oil company avoided booking seats on American altogether during the end of November and early December. "I cannot predict where and what flights will be canceled," he said.