Fly Now Or Pay Later

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — If agreements aren’t reached with pilots, attendants and mechanics, four of the nation’s largest airlines could be grounded this year — and so could many local business travelers. Northwest, United, Delta and American could all be canceling flights, with some possibly being cancelled as early as next month.

So what should a business traveler do? Bob Zwiers, president of Navigant International-Grand Rapids, suggests not waiting. Take that trip now if you can.

“If you have the choice of traveling later or traveling now, I would travel now to take advantage of what is a somewhat stable condition for most of the airlines for the next few months,” said Zwiers. “After that, we really need to watch this day-by-day.”

And that’s what Zwiers said Navigant is doing, monitoring the strike situation closely and providing daily updates to travel managers and customers.

“It changes too quickly to make any long-term commitments,” said Zwiers. “Long-term right now with this is 30 days. That’s about as far out as you can give any assurances.”

If a strike should hit one or more of the airlines, Zwiers said his staff would be busy rescheduling flights for customers and trying to get them back in the air as quickly as possible. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. During a strike other airlines scramble flight schedules and sometimes all the information on those changes isn’t readily available. Or the information changes at the last minute.

“I suspect that we would be rescheduling them for what the earliest possibility would be, and then continuing that process if that possibility would change,” said Zwiers.

Northwest must reach an agreement with its mechanics, who can strike as early as March 12, the date their cooling-off period ends. President George W. Bush, however, has set up an emergency presidential panel to look into the contract situation, a move that could delay a strike for at least another 60 days.

United also needs to reach agreement with its mechanics union. No date has been set for a strike at United as the National Mediation Board hasn’t released the starting date for the cooling-off period. Nor has a strike date been set at American. But the result of the flight attendants strike vote could come this week. Delta needs a contract with its pilots, who can strike on April 1.

The labor groups are looking to get a share of the profits the airlines got in the last half of the decade, following the wage concessions workers agreed to in the first half. The cost of labor is the single largest fixed expense the airlines have. The contract United reached with its pilots last year, considered by analysts as “lucrative” for the pilots, is being viewed as the catalyst for the sharp gains being sought by other employee groups.

A work stoppage at one or two of the airlines, however, wouldn’t do as much damage at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport as it would at others like Detroit Metro because the local airport doesn’t depend on a single carrier like a hub does. While Northwest has about 40 percent of the traffic at Ford, the carrier has about twice that share at Metro. United, Delta and American each carry from 12 to 14 percent of Ford’s passengers.

“We are in the fortunate position that we are not dominated by one particular carrier. And our experience has been when one carrier has a temporary discontinuation of service, the other carriers pick up the slack to a great extent,” said Bruce Schedlbauer, marketing and communications director for the airport.

“We’ve actually seen passengers come to this airport from others in the state when a carrier is struck, because the carrier being struck dominates the other airport. And for the most part, the people that are served by that airport don’t have too many other choices. But they do here,” he added.

Being served by a dozen different airlines, as Ford is, means that travelers leaving from here often have more options than hub airports can offer. Still, Schedlbauer hopes all the strikes can be averted.

“We hate to see service disruption by any carrier, regardless of how many passengers they carry out of here. They all serve, for the most part, different markets, different travelers and they all contribute to the efficient and effective functioning of this facility,” he said.

Of course if all four are struck this year, those actions will do more than inconvenience travelers. Under that improbable worst-case scenario, the economy will likely be grounded. Almost 40 years ago, mechanics walked off the job at five airlines, an action that crippled economic activity. Today, that impact would be multiplied.

“In the 1960s, the amount of traveling being done was just a small percentage of what it is today,” said Zwiers. “So, it would be absolutely devastating today.”  

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