Though Baltimore-Washington International Airport was largely unaffected, millions of travelers headed to the nation's airports yesterday not knowing whether labor strife aimed at three major airlines would keep them grounded this holiday weekend.
United Airlines, the world's largest airline, and Northwest Airlines, the No. 4 carrier in the United States, went to court for the second time in a week yesterday in hopes of preventing further maintenance delays at the hands of their mechanics unions, which are negotiating for higher wages and better work rules. Even so, United reported 20 cancellations by early yesterday afternoon, and more were expected.
Though numbers weren't available, Northwest complained of similar maintenance-related delays and cancellations, which it blames on a 4-year-old dispute with its mechanics union.
At No. 3 Delta Airlines, some pilots are refusing to work overtime as a pressure tactic in a contract dispute with management. The airline has threatened legal action against the group.
The three airlines do a limited amount of business at BWI, and, by yesterday afternoon, no local flight delays were reported as a result of the labor troubles. But industry observers said all the legal maneuvering and union pressure tactics are symbolic of a growing crisis in the airline industry as record numbers of travelers take to the skies. With airline profits mostly up in recent years, airline unions are demanding higher wages as their members struggle to keep up with the increasing workload.
The disputes cut across all employee categories, from flight attendants and baggage handlers to mechanics and pilots.
"They want their share before the airlines can claim times are tough again," said Frank Larkin, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists, which represents the United mechanics.
United has been especially hard hit this year. The airline was forced to eliminate thousands of flights last summer because of a dispute with its pilots union. The airline's on-time performance continues to suffer this fall.
United and Northwest say their mechanics have been purposely delaying plane maintenance and requesting unnecessary repairs in order to pressure the airlines. Courts granted both airlines restraining orders last week barring the mechanics from employing such tactics.
Larkin denied the union was involved in any organized effort to slow jet maintenance. He said members have been instructed to adhere to their contract and obey the restraining order.
But United wasn't satisfied with the results and went back to court yesterday to ask a judge to more strenuously enforce the restraining order in the face of continuing delay tactics. The judge failed to rule on the matter yesterday, but observers say the move was meant in part to send a message to the union.
The courts have been unforgiving of such tactics in the past. American Airlines' pilots were hit with a $45.5 million penalty last year after a sickout that defied a court order. The union denied organizing the event.
Mathew Triaca, a spokesman for United, said the airline is confident it will be able to handle the crush of holiday travelers this weekend. He said the labor dispute will be resolved once the mechanics resume normal work practices.
"We have committed to giving our mechanics an industry-leading contract, and we stand behind that," he said. The mechanics union and airline are expected to meet with the National Mediation Board next week.
Delta and its pilots' union requested federal mediation last week. But the airline said the pilots are still causing crew shortages by refusing to work beyond their scheduled hours.
"Delta may experience some delays and cancellations as a result of that ... job action," said Cindi Kurczewski, a spokeswoman for the airline. Specific numbers were not available yesterday afternoon.
Further labor strife could be on the horizon as other unions join in the pursuit of industry-leading contracts.
Though they haven't caused flight delays, flight attendants at United and American Airlines also have taken steps recently to pressure the airlines into improving wages and work conditions. American Airlines flight attendants conducted informational picketing at BWI Saturday in hopes of calling attention to their two-year effort to win a new contract. And United flight attendants conducted a similar campaign Monday at airports nationwide.
"It's a matter of respect," said Wendy Anderson, an American flight attendant based in Baltimore. She said union members feel unappreciated by management and want what they describe as long overdue wage and benefit increases.
United flight attendants complain of long hours and having to sleep on aircraft or in crew lounges during long layovers. However, a union spokeswoman said members have not disrupted flights by refusing to work overtime.