Labor disputes at American Airlines and British Airways put travel plans at risk

By | March 21st, 2010

Amanda Scheerer’s honeymoon plans included renting an apartment in Barcelona’s historic La Barceloneta district, visiting the Salvador Dalí museum and touring several famous Spanish wineries.

They did not include a strike by British Airways.

But last week, the trade union representing the airline’s cabin crew announced that it would stage a work stoppage this weekend and on selected days later this month to protest working conditions. “My husband and I were supposed to fly from Chicago to London and then on to Barcelona this Saturday,” said Scheerer, a copy editor who lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. But British Airways canceled her flight from London to Barcelona, putting her vacation in jeopardy.

Stateside, there’s also some concern about a possible industrial action. Last week, American Airlines flight attendants asked for federal approval to end contract talks, potentially setting the stage for the first strike at a major U.S. airline in almost five years. Crew members are negotiating a new contract and hoping to reverse some of the cutbacks they agreed to after 9/11.

“It’s an interesting moment in labor relations for the airlines,” said Jonathan Cutler, an associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and author of “Labor’s Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism.”

It may also be an interesting moment for airline passengers. Travelers such as Scheerer are likely to see the few remaining airline services further decimated during a strike — if they’re able to fly at all.

Should the strikes move forward, Cutler expects passengers to have access to fewer in-flight amenities such as meal and beverage service as replacements are brought in to work the flights that aren’t canceled. “It’s going to be very uncomfortable,” he predicted.

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During a work stoppage, travelers should also expect delays, according to Nicole Crain, a professor of economics and business at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. She says that an airline caught in a strike operates more slowly than normal. For passengers, that means arriving at the airport early and not expecting to touch down at their destination on time. Or, for that matter, at all.

“If a trip is critical, re-book on another carrier now,” she said. “If not, check the airlines’ Web sites for flight details, because some flights will continue to operate with replacement staff. British Airways, in particular, has contingency plans that are well described on the Web.”

American Airlines does not list any plans on its site — yet. “Any talk of a strike at this time is incredibly premature,” said airline spokeswoman Missy Latham, adding, “American Airlines is committed to getting contracts with all of its unions and continues to work with the National Mediation Board in working toward that goal.”

John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways, said anyone with an upcoming flight should consult the airline’s Web site, (click on the “Cabin crew strike” box at the top of the site). Although he doesn’t know how many customers have been affected by the announced strike, he said the airline offers a “very generous” policy for re-booking.

In fact, British Airways’ plans are a “mixed bag” for passengers, according to travel agent and blogger Janice Hough. “They’re trying to give travelers advance notice and being flexible about their destination cities,” she said. “For example, if a flight to Los Angeles is canceled, travelers can re-book to San Francisco. And if a flight to Florence is canceled, it can be re-booked to Rome.” One of her clients even switched countries, changing his destination from Entebbe, Uganda, to Nairobi, Kenya.

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The bad news? “Passengers who take advantage of British Airways’ offer to re-book into a different city are on their own for transportation to their original destination and will not be reimbursed for any other additional expenses caused by the strike disruption,” she said.

The American Airlines and British Airways contracts of carriage — the legal agreements between passengers and the airlines — address a customer’s rights when a flight is canceled. British Airways’ general contract of carriage offers one of three remedies, including a ticket on the next scheduled flight or a fare refund. (If you’re flying to or from a European Union country, you may also be entitled to additional compensation under EU regulation 261/2004.) Its agreement does not specifically address a strike.

American’s contract describes a work stoppage as a “force majeure” event, or something beyond its control. According to its agreement, the airline may, without notice, cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight without liability, except for issuing a refund.

If you’re scheduled to fly on one of British Airways’ announced strike dates, or if you’re nervous about American’s labor unrest, call your travel agent as soon as possible, even if you booked the flight online. Bear in mind that Web sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity are travel agencies, too, and and can act as your intermediary to secure a flight or rebook you during a strike.

Scheerer, the honeymoon-bound copy editor, phoned her travel agent, who advised her to cancel her entire itinerary and rebook through a different airline. The new flight cost more, had a seven-hour stopover in Munich, and shortened her vacation by one day. But her honeymoon was saved.

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“After all this,” she said, “Everything has been worked out.”

Here’s another strategy: Buy a fully refundable, but costlier, ticket as a back-up, just in case your flight becomes a strike casualty. You can always get a refund for the canceled flight, and use the refundable backup ticket. But if your flight leaves as planned, just request a refund on the second ticket.

In the end, all British Airways passengers may need is a little patience. “Hold on for a couple of days,” said Cindi Fukami, a management professor and labor expert at the University of Denver. “It may be settled soon.”

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