Air travelers recoil from strike talk 'Anybody booked on American wants . . . something else'

February 12, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Travel agents in Baltimore have been scrambling to rebook nervous passengers as a potential strike by American Airlines pilots threatens to halt a fifth of the nation's air traffic this busy holiday weekend.

"Travelers are calling in saying, 'Get me something else,' " said David Simms, chief executive officer of Travel Guide, a corporate travel agency in Fells Point. "Anybody booked on American wants to be booked on something else."

The strike deadline is midnight Friday.

In Washington, American and the pilots, aided by federal mediators, continued their negotiations yesterday, seeking to resolve a dispute that threatens 90,000 jobs at the nation's largest domestic airline and travel plans for more than 200,000 people a day. Little progress was reported.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, American offers 11 departures a day to some of the country's busiest airports -- including six daily nonstop flights to Dallas-Fort Worth, one to Miami and one to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The airline also operates three American Eagle commuter flights to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"All our travelers from BWI are going to find totally full flights and screwed-up airports," Simms said.

In particular, the prospect of American's daily flight to Miami being canceled has created turmoil for passengers, with virtually every other Florida carrier already heavily booked for the long holiday weekend out of BWI. "It's just a mess," said B. J. Cook, assistant manager of Roland Park Travel. "We've been trying to protect people on other carriers, but most of our people going to the islands can't be accommodated. There's nothing available. There are no other carriers going to many of the islands."

Cook said she had been working for days to rebook three passengers ticketed Saturday on an American flight to the Dominican Republic. "I can't even get them to Florida all day Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday," she said.

"The only one [strike] I remember that impacted us like this one was Eastern," said Cook, referring to the 1989 strike by Eastern Airlines pilots that crippled much of the East Coast. American took advantage of that walkout, gaining a lucrative foothold in Miami, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Last week, American officials advised travel agents that passengers can reschedule without penalty, obtain travel vouchers worth the value of their fares or request full refunds. If there is a strike, American passengers can call the airline's toll-free number, 1-800-433-7300, or go directly to American ticket offices.

Area travel agents said some passengers are booking full-fare reservations on American and another airlines. "We have a lot of nervous people out there," said Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Travel in Baltimore. "We say, 'If you want to be safe, look at other options.' "

Some travel agents began rebooking passengers a month ago, when word of a potential strike surfaced. "Even then, it was difficult at certain times and in certain markets," Cook said. "This weekend has been sold out a long time."

Other major carriers have cautioned that their seating is limited in many markets on the extended Presidents Day weekend.

In addition, the entire airline industry has trimmed its fleets and is currently operating at almost historic load factors.

"Many flights are close to fully booked, especially early departures," Simms said.

"If you lose 20 percent of the capacity there aren't extra aircraft that can be rolled out," he said.

Some carriers are preparing to add staff to handle stranded American passengers, but none have announced added flights.

While some airlines like USAir offer service to the Caribbean, American, with a hub in San Juan, serves far more island destinations. And American provides the only nonstop service from BWI to Dallas, a major connecting point for western destinations.

Last year, American handled almost 822,000 passengers at BWI. That was a drop of 50,000 from the previous year, because American eliminated its BWI-Chicago service in 1996.

American and its 9,300-member Allied Pilots Association have been deadlocked for weeks over compensation and job-security issues. The pilots, who have not had a basic wage increase since 1993, are seeking raises of about 11 percent over four years, or more than double what the company had offered, plus increased stock options. American pilots are paid an average of $120,000 a year.

An equally divisive issue is who should fly the company's small jets. AMR, the parent company, had hoped to purchase small jets to be flown by its commuter division, American Eagle, whose pilots are not unionized and are paid less. American pilots want Eagle to remain strictly the "propeller division."

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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