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What if Delta pilots go on strike?

Published April 8, 2006 12:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The vote by pilots to authorize a strike against Delta Air Lines this week unleashed more inquiries from customers, but the bankrupt airline is clinging to its view that travelers can book with confidence.

"We are not quantifying in any way other than to acknowledge that, yes, we're getting a lot of questions about it," Delta spokesman Bruce Hicks said. "We are committed to doing everything we can to reach a negotiated agreement, and we think that one can be reached."

The pilots union has said its members will walk out if their contract is rejected, and on Friday, the union ordered members to clear their lockers in anticipation of a possible strike the union says is ''becoming more likely every day.'' Although no strike date has been set, pilots have authorized their union chairman to order a strike anytime after April 17.

But industry experts are circumspect, saying they don't believe Delta's 6,000 pilots will strike if an arbitration panel decides April 15 to void their contract and allow the bankrupt airline to impose more than $300 million in pay cuts.

"Will there be a strike? While the stakes are high, the players are smart. They all know the consequences of such action, and cooler heads will prevail. I believe there will be an agreement," said Terry Trippler of Cheapseats.com and one of the nation's top experts on air travel and the airline industry.

"We believe this issue will be resolved, given that all parties realize that a strike will likely result in the demise of the company, or at best, a sharp shrinkage of operations," said Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Calyon Securities Inc.

Even the pilots think the two sides will reach an agreement, despite the sharp rhetoric that has tinged their public statements.

"Most of us think [a settlement] is going to happen. Both sides have too much to lose. A strike probably would put Delta out of business, and that's no good for pilots," said Michael Dunn, a Boeing 737-800 pilot stationed at Delta's Salt Lake City International Airport hub.

Still, a strike could happen.

With that possibility, here are some questions to consider:

More questions and answers

l Would a strike shut down Delta?

Delta's Hicks will not discuss the No. 3 airline's contingency plans. But he said a strike would be fatal to Delta, which has been running on borrowed money since it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September. The airline's creditors would cancel their financial support if pilots strike, leaving Delta with no money to operate.

l Should I buy trip insurance?

Doug Hogan, a travel agent with AAA Utah, says insurance is a good idea, if it covers a strike. His advice: Read the fine print. Many companies exclude strike actions from their insurance coverage. AAA's strike benefit won't kick in until 24 hours have passed. Its policy has a cap of $500 per person. The policy covers hotel rooms and food. It will not pay for the price of a ticket on another airline.

l Would a strike be legal?

Delta pilots say yes. Tom Parsons, chief executive officer of BestFares.com, isn't so sure. Federal law says a strike can only occur 30 days after the Labor Relations Board declares an impasse. What's more, the president has the right to order a 60-day cooling-off period. And the federal bankruptcy judge has the power to order pilots to stay on the job.

l Must Delta book me another flight?

An airline affected by a strike is not required to put its passengers on other airlines, according to http://Travelsense.com, a Web site owned by the American Society of Travel Agents. The reason: Strikes are not covered in most airlines' Contract of Carriage, the legal contract between the passenger and airline. The contract is issued with the ticket at the time of purchase. Most airlines will do nothing more than provide refunds, but only within a day or two of a strike being called. The federal rule mandating that other airlines must sell available seats on similar routes to Delta passengers for $50 each way does not apply during a strike, Parsons said.

l Would Delta Connection partners SkyWest Airlines and Atlantic Southeast Airlines increase their flights during a strike?

SkyWest Inc., which owns SkyWest and ASA, refuses to answer the question. "SkyWest Airlines [and ASA] operations remain status quo, and SkyWest Inc. will not comment on the possible ramifications of a labor strike at Delta Air Lines," spokesman Morgan Durrant said. SkyWest pilots do not belong to a union. Presumably, any sympathy action would subject them to penalties from the airline. ASA pilots are members of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Delta pilots.

Would it be easy to find seats on another airline?

No. Most airlines now operate nearly full aircraft right now. Empty seats probably would be scarce.

I'm thinking about flying Delta. How should I protect myself?

Alan Hess, president and owner of Hess Corporate Travel in Bountiful, says travelers can count on a full refund in case of a strike if they buy their tickets using a major credit card.

"Our experience in the past was when we lost Pan Am, Braniff and Eastern Airlines, people who purchased with cash lost money and customers who bought tickets with credit cards were able to recover their money," Hess says.