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Airline Strikes
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

Four of the country's seven major airlines are facing labor problems. This Sunday, mechanics at Northwest are threatening to walk of the job, which would shut down the airline. Delta pilots have asked to be permitted to strike by April first. We asked our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa, for the story behind the story as well as for some tips on we should do about the continuing mess in the skies.

Blame the rich settlement United Airlines gave its pilots early last fall. Many airline employees took pay cuts or wage freezes in the early '90s when airlines were in bad shape. And many of them haven't shared in the prosperity most airlines and their executives have recently enjoyed. Now, say their unions, it's payback time. And everyone--from Northwest mechanics who have been bargaining for two years to Delta pilots whose contract ends in a couple of months - are envious of the 30 to 40 per cent pay raises that United pilots received.

The airlines, on the other hand, watched fuel prices skyrocket last year. They're eyeing the economy nervously. They worry if they commit to rich, contracts with workers, they might slide right back into Red Ink Land. But you'd think that with the public, the press and politicians complaining daily about the state of air travel in this country, labor and management would realize that coming to terms is more important than ever. Apparently not.

Negotiators at American, Northwest, Delta, and United seem willing to go to the brink, though Northwest says it's meeting again tomorrow with labor, leading to some hope for a zero-hour settlement. And even if a settlement isn't reached by Sunday, President Bush has made it clear he doesn't relish a strike by a major airline this early on his watch. He's promised to declare a 60-day period during which an emergency board will try to bring both sides together. That means no strike at Northwest until at least mid-May.

But employees know they don't have to strike to create havoc at an airline. American mechanics at JFK airport proved that last Wednesday when they began an unofficial work slowdown that led to the cancellation of most American flights from New York. Expect more such tactics.

What can you do? Write the airlines or your congressperson? I doubt it would do much good. Consider driving or taking the train? Sure. Avoid booking seats on Northwest, American, Delta, and United this spring and summer? Unfortunately, that leaves only Continental, US Airways and Southwest as major options. If you're planning a special vacation to Europe this summer, you might consider booking on a foreign airline. In fact, speaking of foreign carriers, they're allowed to fly to and from U.S. airports but not BETWEEN them. Maybe if the government changed that law, as Virgin's Richard Branson has been encouraging for years, you'd see more competition and faster settlements of labor disputes by the hometown teams.

For now, though, the best you can do is follow the news and get a paper ticket instead of an electronic one if your airline is having labor problems.

It's going to get worse before it gets better.

I'm Rudy Maxa from the Savvy Traveler for Marketplace.


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