As striking flight attendants continued to cripple much of its operations, American Airlines on Friday averted a potential shutdown when its pilots union decided not to strike, but to instead support the attendants by flying empty jets at a great cost to the airline.
Meanwhile, American ticket-holders, faced with a second day of canceled flights nationwide, scrambled to claim an increasingly short supply of seats on other carriers for the Thanksgiving Day holiday--one of the busiest times of the year for air travel.
"It's a matter of calling us and hoping that we have a seat on the flight you want," Delta Air Lines spokesman Bill Berry said. "Then, you will have to be flexible. You may have to be willing to arrive earlier or later in the day" than originally planned.
Dallas-based American, the nation's second-largest airline, had faced systemwide collapse if the 10,000-member Allied Pilots Assn. had decided to honor the flight attendants' picket lines, according to industry observers. For the second consecutive day, American said it was able to fill only 50% of its scheduled flights because of the lack of qualified flight attendants. Travel agents said they believed that even fewer flights departed with passengers.
In a joint news conference with the 21,000-member Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants, Allied Pilots Assn. President Rich LaVoy said: "The need for a sympathy strike has been superseded" by the success of the flight attendants' strike.
The flight attendants asked the pilots to keep flying, arguing that it would cost American more to keep the airline running with only half its normal customers than shutting it down, said Jody Hill, chairman of the pilot union's Los Angeles area chapter.
The pilots union had planned to reveal results Friday of a non-binding vote of members on the question of launching a sympathy strike, but the union leadership ordered the ballots destroyed before being tabulated. LaVoy said the union will continue to watch the strike "and retains the right to reconsider a sympathy strike."
American officials claim that the pilot's election would have resulted in a vote against a strike. "It was quite obvious that it was the direction that the vote would have gone," said spokesman Tim Smith.
Earlier in the day, American filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Texas seeking to block the pilots union from holding a sympathy strike. The airline had won an injunction barring ground crews from launching a similar protest.
The strike, which is scheduled to last until Nov. 29, began Thursday after the flight attendants and American deadlocked over salary demands, changes in work rules and concessions sought by the company. The flight attendants say the raises the airline is offering would be negated by employee contributions for health and retirement benefits.
American, which has suffered heavy losses in recent years, also wants to operate some flights with fewer flight attendants as part of a plan to cut operating costs in the face of stiff competition from low-fare airlines.
Despite the lack of a pilots strike, the flight attendants' strike continued to snarl American flights worldwide. Under federal regulations, a commercial airliner cannot fly without at least one qualified flight attendant for every 50 seats--regardless of whether they are filled.
In Southern California, American had to cancel at least 34 of its 46 scheduled departures from Los Angeles International Airport, including a flight to London. The airline had better luck at Orange County's John Wayne Airport, where about 40% of nearly 25 departures left with passengers on board.
American said it gave priority in operating nonstop flights between Los Angeles and New York's Kennedy International Airport. Favored by entertainment executives, at least three of the nine daily flights departed with passengers on Friday, travel agents said. In contrast, all nine flights to Chicago from LAX were canceled.
Airlines such as United, Delta, Continental, Northwest and America West have agreed to honor most American tickets--including discount fares--through Nov. 30 if space is available. In most cases, American ticket-holders can call other carriers to reserve a seat.
But even on competing carriers, space is tight for Wednesday flights to Dallas, Chicago, Nashville, Miami and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.,--cities where American is the dominant carrier or a major player. Seats are also in very limited supply for the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving.
"When we look at booking a seat for someone to Dallas (on other carriers) next Wednesday or Thursday, we find absolutely nothing," said Thomas Nulty, president of Santa Ana-based Associated Travel Management.
Many of American's Los Angeles travelers bound for Honolulu and south Florida today also faced a shortage of seats, said Delta spokesman Bill Berry.
Passengers and travel agents were left fuming when American delayed flights indefinitely before canceling them.