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Travelers Forced to Wing It Amid Strike Threat

February 12, 1997|JAMES F. PELTZ and DON LEE and MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Tens of thousands of people nationwide are scrambling to arrange alternative travel plans out of fear that giant American Airlines will be grounded Friday night because of a pilots strike, travel agencies and rival airlines said Tuesday.

Passengers and their travel agents are steering clear of American and attempting to re-book flight reservations. Other travelers, especially those earning American frequent-flier miles, are double-booking flights--making reservations on other airlines but also on American, in case a strike is averted.

"There's a fair amount of panic among travelers," said Thomas Nulty, president of Associated Travel International, a Santa Ana-based travel agency with 200 offices nationwide, including 100 in California.

Nulty said his travel agency sent out 1,200 letters to business customers and has made alternative booking arrangements for about 10,000 fliers, most of them business travelers.

Tom DiStanislao, a vice president of TransUnion Credit Information in Fullerton, couldn't risk missing a critical meeting in Chicago later this month. So the frequent flier and loyal American customer booked a flight on United.

"I'm not sure who's at fault," he said of the dispute. "But typically, it's the flying public who pays for a strike."

Despite passengers' last-minute changes, a strike would still wreak havoc on U.S. air travel. American, the nation's second-largest airline after United, carries more than 200,000 people on an average day via 2,200 flights.

Other airlines are reaping the reward, and making their own contingency plans for this weekend. They're planning to accept travelers holding American tickets, beef up their staffs and perhaps add a flight or two to existing routes.

Sun Jet, a small airline that operates two flights daily from Long Beach to Dallas, has seen bookings jump 20% as a result of the American strike threat, said Sun Jet President David Banmiller, adding that he might add a third flight to the route this weekend.

Two airlines, United and Continental, are even using the strike prospect as a marketing tool. For Saturday, Sunday and Monday, they're offering stranded American passengers their discount excursion fares that normally require a 14-day or 21-day advance purchase. Wags at United's suburban Chicago headquarters are calling it their "care fare."

Unless American and the pilots union solve their contract dispute, the pilots plan to walk out starting at 9:01 p.m. PST on Friday, at which point American says it will ground its 600 planes and halt service. Its commuter airline service, American Eagle, also would be grounded. Negotiations between the company and pilots recessed late Tuesday night without an agreement.

A strike's impact would be even more pronounced this weekend because of Presidents Day and, particularly in the East, the start of a weeklong spring school break.

"This couldn't have come at a worse time," said Bev Zukow, owner of First Travel of California in Villa Park. "We've got families who have only a set time to travel who have ski packages they've already paid for."

The last strike against American--a five-day walkout by its flight attendants in 1993--also came during a holiday, Thanksgiving, and ended only after President Clinton stepped in to help end the dispute.

Southern California would be hit hard by a strike. American handles 12% of Los Angeles International Airport's passenger traffic on a typical day, and it is the leading carrier between LAX and New York, flying more than 3,000 people daily on that route. Other airlines with nonstop service between the two cities are virtually booked full for this weekend, travel agents reported.

Officials of LAX and American were scheduled to meet today to see what contingency plans the airport might need, said airport spokesman Tom Winfrey.

American also is one of the largest carriers at Orange County's John Wayne Airport, and that is causing problems for Dave Koorajian, a computer-products sales executive in Irvine.

He's looking forward to a trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands southeast of the Bahamas to meet with business associates. Now the trip is in jeopardy because Koorajian, 39, was to fly on American. Heidi Weller, a Houston travel agent, has been scrambling to make alternative bookings for Koorajian's group but isn't sure whether she will succeed.

"This is a big nightmare," Weller said. "I've been working day and night because of this."

Harried local travel agencies are already gearing up to work through the weekend in the event of a walkout by American pilots.

"If the strike is on, we'll work," said George Delanoy, owner of Brea Travel Service. "We need to be there for the customers. We don't want anyone to feel stranded."

Business travelers are less likely to encounter trouble getting alternative bookings because they generally pay higher fares, and other airlines will have more of those seats available, travel agents said.

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