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Holiday woes signal trouble ahead for air travel

Delays and errant workers a sign of industry turmoil.

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Over the years, each side has taken advantage of the delaying tactics made possible by the RLA. When times are good for the airlines, management attempts to delay negotiations until an economic downturn when there are fewer profits for salary increases. Workers prefer to use the delaying tactics when things are bad, hoping to renegotiate higher raises when times are good.

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This year, the cycle has been thrown off by the major airlines current economic crisis - they're predicting losses over $5 billion this year. And that has created even more frustration than usual for employees.

"Unfortunately for labor, at the moment it's between a rock and a hard place, because the legacy carriers are either in bankruptcy or near to it," says Dale Oderman, a professor of aviation management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Several unions have already been forced multiple times to make concessions so they can keep their jobs and their companies alive."

Some analysts contend that has bred unprecedented cooperation between management and labor, who find themselves forced to sink or swim. But it's also created a lot of anger for passengers. Fran, who didn't want her name used, describes an 18-hour "nightmare" trip from Washington to Boston on Sunday. Her US Airways flight was diverted to Manchester, N.H., after which about 100 passengers waited almost three hours in the cold, wind, and snow to find a place to sleep. "It was the inability of USAir to get people to a hotel in the wee hours of the morning," she says. "And, nobody from USAir at any point during this stressful night asked, 'May I be of help?' People are angry."

The severity of the weather problems this weekend was exacerbated by staff shortages - even without the large number of those who called in ill, according to some airline employees. They blame the airlines for not preparing properly for what they knew would be a peak travel time. The airlines deny that. But there is a general consensus that some kind of reform of the aviation labor laws is necessary in the future improve labor relations.

"Something's got to fundamentally change, and it's across the board," says Professor Oderman.

One change consumers can expect in the future is higher prices. Right now, pressure from the low-cost carriers is making it impossible for the major carriers to raise their prices to help stem their red ink. That's in part because carriers like Southwest and JetBlue were able to hedge their prices for fuel, the airlines second-largest cost. Those discount carriers are paying as little $35 or $40 a gallon for fuel. Most of the major carriers weren't financially able to hedge, and are paying closer to $50 a barrel. Eventually, low-cost carriers will pay as much for fuel as the majors. The low-cost carriers also have lower maintenance costs, in part because they're flying newer planes. That, too, will eventually change.

But in the meantime, before any reform of labor relations can take place, the major airlines have to find a way to stabilize their economic situation. "The only thing that the airlines really can work with right now that can have a big impact on savings is the cost of labor, and so that's what they're focusing on," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Washington. "It's a painful situation for these employees that are going through it, but that's the reality: There's only one thing worse than lower pay, it's no pay."