Travelers Seek Other Options as American Airlines Strike Looms

Airline Security Strategies - And a Rush to Secure a Seat

The potential strike at American Airlines has thousands of passengers across the country booking backup reservations and rethinking travel plans.

From California to the Caribbean, families are juggling vacation schedules, hotels are wondering if guests will arrive, and travel agents want the phones to stop ringing - now.

A walkout by the airline's pilot union, currently scheduled for midnight Friday, would ground the nation's largest air carrier - eliminating one-fifth of the country's airborne traffic and impacting entire regions and industries. While negotiations continue between the two sides that could avert a strike, many travelers aren't waiting for a white flag to go up.

Take Kristin Burkland. The Austin, Texas, resident flew to Los Angeles this week on business. She was scheduled to return on an American flight, but instead rebooked on another airline - at an additional cost of $669. "I didn't want to take any chances so I got a flight on Delta just to make sure I can get home," says Ms. Burland, who works for a Texas-based computer company.

The timing of the threatened strike is particularly problematic. Late February is the start of spring break for many schools, and families have planned their vacations around the schedule. Some booked reservations up to a year ago.

This is a "huge week for a lot of people and families," says Gail Strand of the Travel Collaborative, a Cambridge, Mass., travel agency whose phones have been deluged with calls from confused customers.

If families are concerned, so are many hotel operators and restaurateurs. This is particularly true in areas heavily served by Dallas-based American. The airline is the dominant US carrier to South America and Great Britain.

It also controls 70 percent of the traffic in and out of the Caribbean. Moreover, winter tourism accounts for as much as 70 percent of the region's $14-billion economy.

Yet more than passengers on American flights will be affected if the strike comes about. The scramble will be on to find seats on other airlines.

"Flights are going to be overbooked and there is going to be just an enormous squeeze," predicts David Stemplar, head of AirTrav Advisors, a Washington D.C.-based consulting firm. "Load factors [seats sold] have been pretty high anyway, up in the 70s on average. That means peak flights are running almost 100 percent. We are about to see a real crimp in the marketplace."

Still, not everyone will be caught off guard. Many savvy business travelers have been preparing for a possible strike for some time. Joseph Duncan, an economist based in Vero Beach, Fla, says his travel agent began shifting his itinerary away from American Airlines about a month ago. "Over the next month, I hold no American tickets," says Mr. Duncan, who averages about 250,000 miles of travel per year.

Despite all the concern, the unease may be less than it was the last time American was shut down. That occurred in November of 1993, when American's flight attendants staged a five-day walkout. The strike disrupted the holiday travel of 9 million passengers. The dispute was settled when the parties submitting to binding arbitration.

For those who might be impacted by a walkout, experts have suggestions to minimize problems. The first is not to book on American until the dispute is resolved.

"You are going to be left at the airport, basically," warns Robert Di Vito, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.

Should a walkout take place, American has agreements with other major carriers and will try to reroute its passengers. The airline says it will provide refunds for travelers who can't get other flights. Still, Mr De Vito says none of the options are fair to customers who bought cheaper advance fares. If their money is refunded, they will still have to pay higher fares for new tickets.

Other suggestions: If you already hold an American ticket for travel during the likely strike period, consider booking a refundable ticket on another airline. If your American flight takes off, you can cash in the refundable ticket.

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