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American Airlines Strike Leaves Travelers Stranded

By Jesus Sanchez
Los Angeles Times

A strike launched by American Airlines flight attendants on Thursday severely hampered the nation's second-largest carrier, forcing the cancellation of flights across the country and stranding travelers as the busy Thanksgiving Day holiday approaches.

On the first day of a planned 11-day walkout, American said only about half of its flights departed with passengers. The remainder were either canceled or took off without customers because of a lack of qualified flight attendants, in what is the largest walkout against an airline since machinists struck the now-defunct Eastern Airlines in 1989.

Frustrated business people and vacation-goers, who had crossed picket lines and waited in lengthy check-in lines in airports across the country, were stunned to see their jets pull away from the gate without boarding passengers.

"They didn't even have the courage to make an announcement," said Jerry Resnikoff of Los Angeles, after his Dallas-bound jet took off from Los Angeles International Airport with only the flight crew and cargo.

At least 90 percent of the 21,000 flight attendant union members refused to cross the picket lines Thursday, according to union officials.

American Eagle commuter flights were not involved in the strike, which the union said it expects to end Nov. 29.

Delays and cancellations plagued American's worldwide operations, which funnels an average of 250,000 people a day to more than 200 cities. At American's hub in Dallas, Jackie Mueller had been trying to get to Long Beach, Calif., all day, but two flights were canceled and she wasn't sure whether she'd be leaving on a third.

American's passenger traffic was halted for several hours to and from its important Caribbean hub in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And industry sources said American was unable to carry any passengers out of Europe in the strike's opening stages.

Many competing carriers added reservations operators and flights to accommodate stranded American passengers. Most other major carriers have said they would honor most, but not all, American tickets. Continental, Delta and USAir, for example, have been among those airlines that will not honor tickets earned with frequent flyer miles.

The delays and disruptions threaten to grow worse over the next few days when more than 9 million people will jam the nation's airports for Thanksgiving holiday trips.

American's operations face another threat Friday when its pilots' union releases the results of a vote by members whether to strike in sympathy with the flight attendants. American and its pilots are scheduled to begin labor negotiations next year.

"If the pilots honor it they will shut down the airline," said transportation consultant Harold Sirkin. "You can't get replacements for them quickly."

It appeared that most of American's stranded passengers found space on other carriers Thursday, but the supply of available seats will grow extremely tight next week, warn travel agents and airline officials.

"You have to wonder what's going to happen at Thanksgiving time because there is not a whole lot of room available," said Tom Nulty, president of Santa Ana, Calif.-based Associated Travel Management.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants called the strike early Thursday morning after marathon labor negotiations in New Orleans failed to result in an agreement. Both sides have deadlocked over wages, work rules and concessions that American says are needed to return the carrier to long-term profitability.

The labor concessions American seeks are similar to other cost-cutting efforts being pursued by most other major airlines seeking to restore profits after $10 billion in combined losses over the past three years. Despite signs of economic improvement, American, United and other U.S. carriers remain under continued pressure to reduce costs in an era of slow-growth and low-fare carriers, such as Southwest Airlines.

American also said many of the jobs of striking flight attendants may be eliminated by the time they return because the carrier is reducing the number of attendants on certain flights.

But the threat did not faze the union members who refused to cross the picket lines Thursday, according to union officials.

"It became very clear that we could not take an agreement with that many concessions in it," said Denise Hedges, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

American, which has trained other employees to assist qualified flight attendants with in-flight meal service, said it anticipates larger numbers of flight attendants will report to work Friday.