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Western Tourism Would Take Brunt if Attendants Strike

Labor: America West employees could walk out as early as today. Spring-recreation mecca Phoenix is airline's base.

March 19, 1999|DAVID SCHWARTZ | REUTERS

TEMPE, Ariz. — Plans for a possible job action by America West Airlines flight attendants starting this weekend would spell trouble for thousands of travelers in the West, industry experts said Thursday.

Representatives of the flight attendants union and airline management were negotiating in Washington for a second day in talks called by the National Mediation Board in hopes of averting a strike.

Union leaders representing 2,400 flight attendants vowed to carry out a strategy that calls for their members to leave selected flights shortly before departure or to stage a mass walkout for a day or weeks at a time.

They have dubbed the strategy CHAOS, for "Create Havoc Around Our System." The two sides remain at odds over salary and other money issues.

Walkouts and other job actions at the carrier would come at a time when the sun-drenched Phoenix metropolitan area--the airline's headquarters and main hub--is bustling with an estimated 100,000 tourists in town for a variety of events.

Phoenix is playing host to the NCAA basketball Western regional playoffs, a major women's professional golf tournament and major league baseball spring training games that draw throngs of visitors to the area annually.

Local travel agents said people with a choice were picking other airlines just in case, but the options were becoming limited.

"Space on the other airlines is getting really tight," said Louis Thiele, a longtime Phoenix travel agent. "And I see it only getting worse the longer this goes on. It's already been disruptive."

America West's flight attendants, who are working under a 1993 contract, may legally strike or the company can lock them out as of 10 p.m. local time Friday when a 30-day cooling-off period set by the mediation board expires. A strategy similar to the CHAOS plan was used at Alaska Airlines in 1993.

Experts predict the impact of any job action would be weighty but not as severe as the recent American Airlines pilot sickout because America West flies just 3% of the nation's air passengers.

America West, which took to the air in 1983, serves 51 domestic markets, plus Mexico and Canada.

"If you're in Florida, it's no problem, and the same is true if you're on the East Coast," said Mike Boyd, an airline analyst in Evergreen, Colo. "But it's going to be a big deal if you're west of the Rocky Mountains, because America West is such an important player in the area."

Among the hardest-hit would be the airline's busy hubs in Phoenix, where it is responsible for 40% of the market, and Las Vegas. The airline is No. 2 in that gambling mecca.

Deanna Clarkson, a spokeswoman for the Assn. of Flight Attendants Council 66, said union members were able to shut down the airline in seven minutes during a test run Thursday at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Company officials have said they may be forced to shutter the airline themselves to protect passengers.

"If there is a disruption in service, our primary objective will be to maximize the convenience to our passengers," said Patty Nowack, an airline spokeswoman.

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