The Navigator: When labor problems cause turbulence


American Airlines flight attendants demonstrate during a rally to save jobs at American Airlines and American Eagle, as hearings to void labor contracts begin at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York April 23, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)
Columnist September 28, 2012

As American Airlines pilots formed picket lines at airports across the country last week, and the nation’s third-largest air carrier canceled hundreds of flights, David Ludt made the difficult decision to redeem all of his AAdvantage miles for a flight to Europe next year.

Now he’s worried that there might not be a next year. Like others with plans to fly on American, Ludt fears for the airline’s future, which could include downsizing or a merger with another carrier.

“What guarantee do I have that my departure and return dates will be the same as the dates of my originally booked flights?” asks Ludt, a high school teacher from Shrewsbury, Mass. “This is important to know before I book any nonrefundable hotel accommodations in London and Venice.”

American, which has been flying under bankruptcy protection since November, is the latest carrier to deal with labor trouble: in this case, pilots calling in sick or slowing operations by filing additional maintenance reports, allegedly in retaliation against the carrier’s cost-cutting measures. The pilots deny that they’re engaged in a slowdown.

Fortunately, a combination of regulations, contracts and airline policies offer some protection for passengers in the event of an operational delay. But they can’t cover every kind of loss that a late or canceled flight might generate.

For Ludt, there’s good news and bad news. American probably will get him to London. But it might not be when he expected to fly, and the airline won’t compensate him for missed vacation days or nonrefundable hotel reservations.

American’s problems are hardly unique. This month, Lufthansa canceled about half of its scheduled 1,800 flights because of a one-day work stoppage. In August, United Airlines narrowly averted a work stoppage by pilots upset at the lack of progress on a new contract. And earlier this year, Air Canada endured numerous cancellations because of labor trouble.

If your upcoming American flight is canceled, it might be difficult to tell whether the cause was a work stoppage or a planned reduction. The airline was on track to operate thousands of fewer flights this month than in August, but that was also true for last year’s flight totals.

American says that it’s doing its best to minimize the effect on passengers. During the first week of the delays, the carrier canceled 300 flights, which allowed the company to reschedule passengers in advance. Through October, American thinned its flight schedule by 1 to 2 percent.

“We have increased staffing in other areas to assist in re-accommodating customers and are reaching out to customers proactively to notify them of the options available and the ability to stand by for earlier flights at no charge,” says American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Sanderson.

Yet American’s assurances can’t answer every passenger concern. Take Susan Schwartz Jones, chief executive of a biotechnology firm in Seattle. She and her husband saved 3.5 million American Airlines miles for the vacation of a lifetime, and she’s concerned that American’s days as an independent carrier might be numbered as it reportedly mulls a merger with US Airways. Should she cash in the miles now or wait to take the perfect getaway?

Historically, miles don’t retain their value, so the sooner you use them, the likelier you are to get their full value, such as it is. And when an airline is flying the Chapter 11 skies, the depreciation of mileage awards comes into sharp focus. Experts say that Jones should burn the miles now — advice American is likely to agree with, since it doesn’t benefit from having billions of unredeemed airline miles on its balance sheets.

What concerns most passengers is the uncertainty of not knowing whether a flight will leave as scheduled during a work stoppage, and what happens if it doesn’t.

American says that it’s offering three options if your flight is delayed more than two hours during its labor problems: You can receive a full refund, either of your fare or of any frequent-flier miles you may have used. It will rebook you on another airline, if there’s room. Or you can change your ticket to a future American flight at no charge, meaning that both your change fee and any fare differential will be waived.

The carrier isn’t required to do most of that, at least under federal law. As a matter of policy, when they cancel a flight, most airlines will rebook you at no additional charge on their first flight to your destination with available space. If you’d rather not fly, the airline must refund your ticket or redeposit any miles you used to buy it. But federal regulations don’t require an airline to transfer you to another carrier at its expense, also known as “endorsing” your ticket to another airline.

For most people with plans to travel during the upcoming holiday season, it isn’t a matter of what American will — or should — do. It’s more a matter of what steps they can take now to make sure that their upcoming flight goes smoothly.

“Should I be proactive, or just wait and be reactive in the event that this sick-out actually happens when I’m supposed to fly?” asks Marilyn Daggett, who’s flying from Phoenix to Pittsburgh for a family wedding. “Or am I pretty much relegated to rebooking on a competitor, if I can find a decent price, and eating the original tickets?”

For Daggett, a wait-and-see approach might work, as long as she has enough time to get to the wedding. Business travelers who absolutely must be at their destination by a certain time often take a different tack, booking an expensive, fully refundable ticket as a backup, just in case their actual flight doesn’t leave as scheduled. Then, if they leave as planned, they simply ask for a refund on the second ticket.

Maybe the best way to prepare for a flight on any airline affected by labor problems is to know your rights before you leave. Those are outlined on American Airlines’ Web site and in its terms and conditions, also known as its “contract of carriage,” which can also be found online. An overview of your rights under federal regulations is on the Transportation Department’s Web site.

And if none of those solves your problem, you can always do what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did when his American flight to Washington was delayed. He groused about it on Twitter, opening with the observation that “this has not been the best week in American Airlines history.” The online tirade yielded something many passengers say is in short supply when a work stoppage hits an airline: an apology.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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