Communications executive Sherry Lichtenberg is booked to fly to Madison, Wis., on Northwest Airlines for a court hearing at the end of the month, and she's hoping a threatened mechanics strike will not have brought the carrier to a standstill by then.

"I don't expect Northwest to go out on strike," said Lichtenberg, a Logan Circle-based frequent flier. "I expect both sides will reach an agreement at the very last minute."

Other travelers don't seem to be worried either. Airline executives said yesterday travelers were still purchasing tickets at record levels despite the labor unrest. And frequent fliers themselves said they weren't rushing to switch airlines.

Northwest, the nation's fourth-largest carrier, is in a heated contract dispute with its mechanics union over its efforts to reduce annual labor costs by $176 million through pay and job cuts. The mechanics have threatened to strike when a government-mandated "cooling off" period expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 20.

As tensions have escalated in recent weeks, Northwest executives have maintained that the airline would continue to fly in the event of a strike. The airline said it has been working on a contingency plan for more than a year, which includes the hiring of third-party mechanics with at least five years of experience. It said the FAA has reviewed its plan, although it also runs the risk of alienating passengers who have sympathy for the striking workers.

In the first three days of August, the airline sold $21 million worth of tickets on its Web site, a record for each day and a new record for a three-day period, Al Lenza, vice president of Northwest's distribution and e-commerce, said in an employee memo distributed yesterday.

Less than 1 percent of callers to the airline's five reservation centers have "expressed concerns about a possible work stoppage," said Crystal Knotek, vice president of reservation sales and customer care. Knotek added that in August, "ticket sales revenues to date are better than our goals."

Many frequent fliers such as Lichtenberg said they have heard the strike threats before. In recent months, employees at United Airlines and US Airways have threatened to walk off their jobs in response to recent pay and benefit cuts. But neither airline was struck.

Northwest's standoff has progressed much farther than disputes at United and US Airways. Only Northwest's contract dispute became heated enough for the National Mediation Board to step in and agree to oversee negotiations. But those talks fell apart last week when the mechanics broke them off, bringing the airline closer to a strike.

The last time Northwest's planes were grounded because of labor strife was in August 1998, when its pilots stopped flying for nearly three weeks over a contract dispute.

Northwest said it has notified travelers with at least 25,000 frequent flier miles of its contingency plans. In the letter, Jim Cron, Northwest's vice president of marketing and sales, told travelers, "We know that labor uncertainty increases travel worries and we wanted to update you on our plans so that you can make your plans with confidence."

Greg Miller, a Laurel-based IBM software salesman, said he plans to continue to fly Northwest because it offers the most nonstop flights to many of his most frequent destinations in the Midwest, such as Detroit. "I would still book on Northwest because I feel the company would do its best to make sure its routes are covered," Miller said.

If Northwest is forced to delay or cancel a flight because of labor problems, travelers holding tickets are entitled to a refund of the unused portion of the ticket, said Minneapolis-based travel expert Terry L. Trippler of

Travelers also could use their Northwest ticket on one of the airline's code-share partners such as Continental, Delta or Alaska. But since airlines are flying at near-capacity this summer, finding an open seat may be difficult, Trippler said.

AirTran's New Web Site Crashes: AirTran Airways's new Web site, featured last week in BizClass, proved so popular with travelers on its debut that it crashed days after it launched and isn't expected to be back up until next week, says AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson.

AirTran launched a fall fare sale along with the new Web site. Heavy traffic slowed down booking so much that the airline took the site down, replacing it with the earlier version. The airline had overhauled the Web site to improve navigation and speed. It sells nearly half of its tickets through its Web site. "We were generating complaints because it was so slow. It was very pretty, but it was slow," Hutcheson said.

Question of the Week: Seasoned business travelers, what advice would you give to those who have just begun a job that requires lots of traveling time? What's the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you started out? Is there an airline frequent flier program or affinity credit card that is best for beginning frequent fliers? Send your suggestions to Please include your name and a daytime telephone number.

The mechanics union pickets the home of Northwest chief executive Douglas M. Steenland. The airline has not been grounded by a strike since 1998.