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.