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What are my options when an airline's employees go on strike?

Dear Anita,

What recourse do I have if I have a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket and the airline goes on strike?

Pat O.
Irvine, CA


Dear Anita,

My friend and I have tickets to Los Angeles from Myrtle Beach on US Airways and American Airlines. We have a tour paid from Los Angeles to Australia. If American goes on strike, what are our options—our tickets are non-refundable. Would another airline fly us from Chicago (O'Hare) to Los Angeles if American were on strike? We made these reservations two months ago and have paper tickets. Thanks in advance for your reply.

Elaine P.

Dear Pat and Elaine,

So, what options do you have once you've purchased a ticket and the airline is in danger of a strike? You can try the following:

  • Switching airlines: Many airlines have agreements with other airlines to accept tickets for travel in the case of a strike if space is available. However, policies vary with each carrier. Some require re-ticketing. Some will honor frequent-flier award tickets, but others will not. Your best bet is to call other airlines to see what options are available.

  • Rebooking: Most airlines will waive many of the usual rebooking restrictions and penalties for ticket-holding customers who are willing to reschedule their trip for another time.

  • Buying another ticket: Though expensive, another option is to buy a fully-refundable, backup ticket on another carrier. This way, if your original airline has a strike, you will still be able to reach your destination. If not, you can cash in the backup ticket for a full refund. However, be aware that some airlines competing with a striking carrier will issue only non-refundable tickets, even full-fare ones, during a strike, so this may not always be a viable backup option.

    If you are using a frequent flyer award ticket, a word of caution: you may find that other airlines will not accept such tickets during a strike. If this happens to you, the striking airline will re-credit your frequent flier account with the unused mileage.

    People on cruise vacations that booked their air travel from the cruise line are protected because responsibility lies with the cruise line to get passengers to the ship. However, travelers who did not purchase their air from the cruise line are really at a disadvantage with no protection and will have to be creative to get to and from their ship.
If you have an E-Ticket, get a paper ticket immediately. After June 1, 2001, you will no longer be able to change E-Tickets to paper tickets on any airline. The Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) is implementing new rules regarding E-Ticketing. Once an E-Ticket is produced, it is final—no exceptions. Global Reservations Systems (GDS) such as Sabre, Worldspan, and Apollo will no longer allow travel agents to convert an E-Ticket to paper. Understand, a paper ticket is a negotiable document; E-Tickets are not negotiable documents. Be advised that other airlines will accept paper tickets, but only on a stand-by basis.


Dear Anita,

A group of us are leaving for Japan and Hong Kong on March 3rd, traveling on Northwest Airlines. What happens if the airline goes on strike, and we're all stuck over there? I understand that we would probably have to pay for the tab while stuck, but would we have any legal recourse for reimbursement once the strike was settled?

Thanks for your help,

Marlene Weber
Clearwater, FL

Dear Marlene,

A strike is considered a force majeure event, meaning it is out of the airline's control. During a strike, you are at the mercy of the airline, and this means that you have no special rights other than to get a full refund on any unused portion of your ticket. Most well-established carriers work reasonably well trying to re-accommodate passengers on other airlines; however, that is not always possible. If you become stuck somewhere, you could end up with many out-of-pocket expenses.

Hi Anita,

My friends and I are planning a trip to Canada in August this year. We understand that some of the major airlines face possible strikes this summer. We'd like to avoid making reservations with those airlines but don't know which airlines will be involved. Do you know which airlines have contract deadlines, or do you know where I can get this information? We'd appreciate any information you have. Thanks!

Margo M.
Burbank, CA

Dear Margo,

It is good to know your options in the event of a "possible" airline strike. Currently, as of press time on March 3, we are aware of five airlines that are having tense contract negotiations:

Northwest Airlines Mechanics—On February 9, the National Mediation Board (NMB) released the parties into a 30-day cooling-off period. Both parties will participate in meetings on March 7 in Washington, DC. They can legally strike on March 12, the end of the cooling-off period. However, President George W. Bush accepted the board's recommendation to set up an emergency presidential panel, which could delay a strike for at least another 60 days after March 12.

Comair Pilots—Comair pilots could go on strike as soon as March 26, which would severely impact Cincinnati given that Comair operates 323 daily flights there.

Delta Airlines Pilots—Delta and its pilots have passed the February 28 deadline to negotiate a contract with U.S. mediators. Both sides are currently waiting to see if the NMB releases the two sides to a 30-day cooling-off period. A strike could occur as soon as the first week of April.

American Airlines Flight Attendants—If all negotiations break down, a strike could be declared as soon as mid-April.

United Airlines Mechanics—The mechanics' contract came up for renewal last July, and the two sides have been negotiating for more than a year. No one knows an exact time frame in which a strike would occur. Currently, the NMB is working with both parties; when the NMB releases them, a 30-day cooling-off period will begin—after which a strike could occur.

You may remember that three years ago, President Clinton stepped in one minute after midnight to stop the American Airlines pilot strike. Similarly, President Bush is eager to avoid the economic disruption of an airline strike and has gone on record stating that he would act to avert a walkout by mechanics at Northwest. In my opinion, Bush is likely to intervene with other strikes as well.

I hope I've been helpful. Happy travels!

Anita Dunham-Potter

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