Tie-ups seen if US Air closes

Airline threatens to ground flights as labor deadline nears

Flight attendants dig in

March 24, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,Sun Staff

Airports and railway stations throughout the eastern half of the country are bracing for gridlock, as US Airways continues its threat to shut down at midnight because of failed labor talks with its flight attendants.

Competing airlines, along with Amtrak, announced that they will honor tickets held by stranded US Airways passengers if the Arlington, Va.-based carrier grounds its planes tomorrow, canceling as many as 2,200 flights nationwide.

Industry watchers doubt that competitors can handle all of US Airway's 150,000 or more daily passengers, particularly during the busy spring-break travel season and in the Northeast and Florida, where the airline's traffic is heaviest.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where US Airways is one of the dominant carriers, Southwest Airlines said it would honor tickets from its competitor if US Airways shuts down. But Southwest, flush with customers of its own, would accept passengers only on a standby basis.

"People are taking this pretty seriously," said David S. Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Washington.

"There are a lot of college students and families moving north and south at this time of year, especially in Baltimore and the other hub cities, and there just is not sufficient capacity to handle a shutdown."

Negotiators for US Airways and the Association of Flight Attendants continued talks at an undisclosed Washington-area hotel yesterday with help from the National Mediation Board. At the board's request, neither side has discussed the talks in detail.

The flight attendants have worked for three years without a contract and are asking for raises and changes in the way the airline pays pension and family leave benefits. US Airways employs about 9,800 flight attendants, with annual salaries of $17,100 to $37,000.

US Airways is offering a contract with salary and benefits 1 percent higher than the average paid by the nation's top four airlines -- United, Delta, American and Northwest. Flight attendants say the formula would result in a 4.9 percent pay cut and that the airline has been vague about the dollar value of its "parity plus one" concept.

US Airways has offered to accept "as is" the flight attendant contract offered by any of the top four airlines. The union has rejected that offer.

A federally required "cooling off" period expires at midnight tonight, after which the flight attendants have promised a campaign of random strikes and walkouts. Rather than operate under that threat, US Airways officials say they would shut down the airline, except for its US Airways Express commuter service, until a contract is reached.

"It's been slow, but at least they're talking," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the flight attendants. "I expect it to go up to the deadline."

Analysts say a shutdown could cost US Airways $20 million a day. The airline has promised to continue paying about 33,000 employees -- all but the flight attendants -- for "as long as financially feasible."

For travelers, a shutdown would be felt most in the Northeast, where US Airways controls roughly a third of the market. Besides its heavy presence at BWI and the other two Washington-area airports, the airline is the largest or second-largest carrier at airports in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, N.C., Boston and New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Those airports offer competing service, but travel agents have been steering passengers to US Airways competitors for weeks in expectation of a shutdown. Amtrak has promised to add 1,500 seats to its trains between Boston and Washington.

At BWI yesterday afternoon, the Sykesville Raiders Competition Squad was waiting to board a flight for Orlando, Fla., to participate in a dance competition at Disney World. Counting parents and other relatives, the group had 54 members.

They booked a US Airways flight months ago and are scheduled to return Monday.

"This is a logistics nightmare already," said the group's treasurer, Michael Mandella, as he tried to corral the group for check-in. "If we have to fly on other airlines or split up families to get back, or if we get stuck in Florida, who knows what we'll do."

On Pier D, Darin and Lucie Levine were waiting to board a flight for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to spend a week with family members. It was their first time traveling with their 3-month-old son Aaron.

Levine, an Alexandria, Va., lawyer, said he had checked every flight on every airline at the three area airports to find the most convenient time and availability.

"I wanted a quick, direct flight to make it as easy as possible," he said. "But that was 23 days ago, and I wasn't thinking about a strike. Now I'll have to start checking again when we get down there."

A shutdown would affect all flights on US Airways' main routes and those served by US Airways Shuttle and the airline's MetroJet subsidiary. US Airways Express flights would operate, but there might be scheduling changes.

Passengers who want to use US Airways tickets to book flights with other airlines must have paper tickets. The exchanges will be allowed only if there is a shutdown and will apply for flights on the current day and the next two days.

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