If Northwest Attendants Strike, It Could Be a Bumpy Ride

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

If Northwest Airlines flight attendants walk off their jobs next Tuesday, the carrier's own passengers won't be the only ones to suffer. Airline travelers who have no plans to fly Northwest could find themselves wishing they'd stayed home.

The flight attendants at the nation's fifth-largest airline have threatened to strike unless a new contract agreement is reached. The action could take several forms -- a standard walkout, sickouts, or another disruption to Northwest's operations. If the airline is forced to cancel flights, it will have to find seats on other carriers for its displaced passengers. That means planes already packed at record levels will get even more crowded.

"If you think that Continental flight was full before, they're going to be putting folding chairs in the aisles," said Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based travel expert. "If any airline goes on strike it is going to impact you no matter what part of the country you're in or what airline you fly."

Over the weekend, Northwest flight attendants passed out leaflets at airports across the country alerting travelers of possible disruptions.

Northwest has asked a bankruptcy judge to block any job action by its 9,300 flight attendants. A decision could come as early as tomorrow. "Any problem with Northwest will ripple throughout the system," said Joe Brancatelli, editor and publisher of business travel site http://www.joesentme.com/ . Last week, Brancatelli encouraged travelers to stop booking with the airline until it reached an agreement with its flight attendants.

Northwest's passengers face last-minute uncertainty about their flights because of the type of action planned by the flight attendants. The disruptive nature of the threatened action -- unannounced sickout and delays -- could mean passengers arrive at the airport only to find their flight cancelled. In a general strike, passengers could know long before they head to the airport that their plane would not be taking off.

Northwest is among the leaders in flights to Asia and is the dominant carrier to Detroit, Memphis and Minneapolis.

Industry analysts say a strike or any type of long-term action could send Northwest -- which has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection -- out of business. Other airlines operating under Chapter 11 have also been threatened by strikes, including US Airways and United. But both carriers reached agreements in the final hours before a walkout was triggered.

Northwest wants its flight attendants to agree to cuts of as much as 40 percent in pay and benefits. The airline has wrangled over similar concessions from its other workers as part of an overall effort to trim $1.4 billion in annual labor costs.

Yesterday, Northwest reported a higher-than-expected loss of $285 million in the second quarter, up from a $226 million loss in the same period a year ago. The company attributed a large portion of the losses to its bankruptcy restructuring. Without those charges, the airline says it would have reported a profit of $179 million.

Fare Hike Redux: For the eighth time this year, the nation's airlines have raised fares. This time, the hike was aimed at business travelers.

Over the weekend, United Airlines raised its domestic walk-up fares by $5 or $10 each way depending on the flight distance. On tickets booked fewer than seven days in advance, the airline boosted fares by $5 on flights under 1,000 miles and $10 on flights of more than 1,000 miles.

The fare hikes apply to travel booked in September, making them the first increases of the fall.

Most major airlines, including American, US Airways and Continental, matched the increases. But as of yesterday, fares were still fluctuating. That's because United backed away from the hikes in several cities where it competes with such low-cost carriers as JetBlue and AirTran that did not match the move.

Southwest Survey: Southwest Airlines last week e-mailed surveys to thousands of its frequent fliers seeking responses on its test program for assigned seating.

As part of an eight-week test, Southwest last month began assigning seats for flights in and out of San Diego.

The e-mail asked frequent fliers not only if they liked the idea of assigned seating but also whether they would actually fly the airline more or less frequently if the system became standard.

Southwest is the nation's only major carrier that does not issue assigned seats to its passengers. Instead, it has had an open-seating policy for the past 35 years. Many of its passengers have likened the boarding process to a cattle call.

Members of the airline's frequent-flier program who did not receive the e-mail can access the survey at http://www.southwest.com/rapid_rewards/rr_survey.html . Respondents have to enter their frequent-flier number to respond.

The airline said it wants to hear from all Southwest passengers -- not just frequent fliers -- but it has not set up an e-mail address for those respondents. Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said passengers are welcome to write to: Southwest Airlines Customer Relations, P.O. Box 36611, Dallas TX 75235.

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