They're walking and you're waiting. Here's how to survive an airline strike

As passengers booked on American Airlines flights found out over the Presidents' Day weekend, when pilots repeatedly called in sick, major airline strikes (or strike-like actions) can cause major havoc.

Unlike in Europe, where wildcat walkouts happen without warning, you should be able to see a U.S. strike coming at least a month ahead. Federal labor laws require that before a union can walk off the job, it must go through a formal 30-day cooling-off period.

Once the clock starts ticking, labor and management could still reach a settlement. Or the president could intervene, as Clinton did in February 1997. That American Airlines pilots' strike lasted only four minutes before the president ordered pilots back to work. The two sides then came to terms on a new contract before the extended cooling-off period expired. (Don't depend on presidential intervention, though. Clinton's action was the only time in the past 32 years that a president has used that power.)

Sometimes unionized airline employees will try tactics that don't qualify as a full-fledged strike and are impossible for passengers to foresee. For example, mechanics occasionally resort to what's called a "rule-book slowdown," which can result in lengthy delays or even cancellations. In these cases, mechanics conduct overly thorough, by-the-book inspections, deciding that little things need to be fixed before the plane can be released for flight-things that normally could have waited.

In recent years, flight attendants have used a tactic called CHAOS—for Create Havoc Around Our System. Invented by Alaska Airlines attendants in 1993, CHAOS is described as an "intermittent strike"; the employees select a few flights and don't show up to work on them. As a result, not only does the airline have to cancel the flights, but a feeling of uncertainty and worry is created among passengers, causing reservations to fall off (and hurting the bottom line).

Another union strategy is the holiday job action. Unions know that by instigating trouble around a major holiday, they can make a huge dent in revenues. When American Airlines flight attendants walked off the job in 1993, they did so at the start of the Thanksgiving crunch. When American's pilots struck (albeit briefly) in 1997, they did it to coincide with the Valentine's/Presidents' Day long weekend. And this past Christmas, a substantial number of TWA flight attendants called in sick, forcing the airline to cancel more than 200 flights. TWA spent thousands of dollars on meals and hotel rooms for stranded travelers, and got a judge to issue a temporary restraining order against the union-which naturally denied that there was an organized sick-out at all.

In the American Airlines episode of two months ago, pilots staged a similar holiday job action, calling in sick in droves right before Valentine's Day and Presidents' Day (they were protesting the relatively low pilot pay scales of Reno Air, which was being integrated into American's system). A judge ordered them back to work after five days and thousands of canceled flights, ruling that the sick-out amounted to a de facto strike, which is illegal. Many pilots, however, did not immediately follow the court's order.

Once a strike starts, there's no telling how long it might continue. Some unions are very pragmatic, while others can be downright radical in their determination to stay off the job. An acrimonious Eastern Airlines 1989 strike by mechanics and most pilots is technically still going on-the airline filed for bankruptcy, went out of business, and disappeared before the conflict was ever resolved.

There's a bright side to all this. Once a strike is over, the affected airline will almost certainly roll out a big fare sale to bring passengers back-and competing airlines will likely match those fares.

tips and tactics

  • Before a strike
  • Don't believe it when airlines say flights won't be canceled. In 1989, Eastern insisted it could ride out a mechanics' strike with little impact—until Eastern's pilots decided they wouldn't cross the picket lines.
  • If you buy a ticket on an airline with labor troubles, ask for a paper ticket, not an electronic one. "When you have to approach another airline for a seat, a paper ticket makes it much easier," says Pam Saari, an executive of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a chain that placed teams of agents at airports during Northwest's 1998 strike, using cell phones to rebook stranded travelers.
  • Look for a new loophole. In the past, some savvy business travelers would buy one ticket on the airline in trouble—then hedge their bets by buying an unrestricted fullfare ticket on a competing carrier. If there was no strike, they could use the first ticket and get a full refund on the second. But before the big Northwest strike, some competing carriers made their full-fare tickets nonrefundable on routes likely to be affected.
  • During a strike
  • Don't worry: If you're holding a nonrefundable ticket on a struck airline, the airline will waive the restriction and offer a refund, or allow you to rebook on a future flight.
  • If you're in a hurry, rebook on a competitor. Most airlines will accept other airlines' tickets in the event of a strike—even lowerpriced restricted tickets, although you may have to pay the difference. But try to wait a few days. During the first 24 hours of the Northwest strike, Saari says, ticketed passengers who went directly to other airlines for seats often had to pony up more than the face value of their Northwest ticket. By the second or third day, however, most other airlines were accepting Northwest tickets with no added charges.
  • Use your travel agent. While the struck airline will help you find alternate space on another carrier, you'll probably have trouble getting through by phone.
  • Know when to give up. If you're booked to travel on a struck airline with a frequentflier-award ticket, don't expect to find a seat on another airline unless you pay for it.