Passengers' worries take off with airlines' recent troubles

Bad news from United, US Airways, American rattles many travelers

August 19, 2002|By Susan Chandler and Lynette Kalsnes | Susan Chandler and Lynette Kalsnes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bob Ruscitto isn't afraid of flying. He's afraid of being grounded.

The businessman from Erie, Pa., is worried about losing his 160,000 frequent-flier miles on US Airways. So he's planning a bevy of trips, including a 20th-anniversary jaunt with his wife to Aruba, "first class both ways."

With US Airways Group Inc. operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, Ruscitto doesn't want his miles to become a casualty. "Are they going to yank those miles back?" he wondered last week while waiting for a flight at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Airline passengers have been hit with a triple whammy in recent days.

First there was Chapter 11 filing on Aug. 11 by US Airways. Then American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, said it was cutting back its winter schedule and laying off 7,000 people.

Then United Airlines said it would have to file for bankruptcy this fall if it didn't get sweeping concessions from its employees and vendors.

All that bad news has some travelers more rattled than they have been in months, just as many were beginning to feel comfortable boarding planes again.

Travel agents are trying to cope with the fallout.

Prospective fliers jammed the telephone lines last week, asking their travel agents whether they could still book flights with United and US Airways.

Lennart Jonsson, owner of Cole Travel Service Inc. in Geneva, Ill., has been reassuring customers that the airlines are flying. But he has little in the way of comfort to offer them besides that.

"We don't know what happens next," Jonsson said.

Neither does University of North Dakota junior Amber Kolrud, who was shocked when she learned about a possible United Airlines bankruptcy.

Hours after reading the news, the 21-year-old was to fly United to Costa Rica for a foreign-study program. She has a United ticket to return in May and fears that she might have to scramble to find another way home.

"I hope it's still around on the way back," Kolrud said. "You choose United because it's a bigger carrier, because you'd think it will last."

Other travel agents said their customers were taking the bad news in stride.

Veteran travelers have been through all this before. Storied carriers such as TWA, Continental, Pan Am and Eastern sought bankruptcy protection in the 1980s and 1990s. Some, such as Continental, survived and thrived, and others, such as Pan Am and Eastern, didn't.

"It has been made clear in the media that the airlines will continue flying as usual, and people understand that," said Kristy Richie, owner and manager of Interview Travel Inc., a travel agency in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

Susan Chandler and Lynette Kalsnes are reporters for the Chicago Tribune.

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