Today is expected to be the biggest air-travel day of the Christmas season, despite icy weather and labor problems that are forcing major airlines to cancel or delay flights.
The Air Transport Association is predicting 2.14 million people will fly commercial airlines today. They are part of the 39.6 million air travelers expected for the Christmas season that began Dec. 15 and runs through Jan. 4.
Major airlines say they are ready for the rush but are preparing for the worst.
“We’re very prepared,” said Mary Beth Schubert, Northwest Airlines spokeswoman. “We’ve increased our staffing levels at various airports to accommodate the increase in passengers. We are certainly using more technology to bust lines than ever before.”
Among their options, Northwest passengers can buy their tickets over the Internet or at automated kiosks in airport terminals.
Cindi Kurczewski, Delta Air Lines spokeswoman, acknowledged that bad weather and labor problems were contributing to flight cancellations and delays. “The past couple of days, because of those two combined, have been particularly challenging,” she said.
Delta managers have been rearranging flight schedules for the rest of December to “minimize any inconvenience to our customers,” she said.
Travelers at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport probably will have to make their way past unhappy American Airlines flight attendants today. The flight attendants are handing out informational fliers at 19 airports nationwide explaining their grievances about their pay scale. They scheduled a vote in January on whether to strike after contract negotiations broke down this month.
The weather also may refuse to cooperate. The National Weather Service forecast a storm along the East Coast for today, although most of the nation is predicted to be clear. Cold temperatures are forecast from the Plains to the Southeast.
“Weather could be a very serious consideration,” said Tom Sullivan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Au-
thority. “If there’s poor weather in Chicago or Dallas, it can back up traffic all across the country.”
Bookings have been strong for the second half of December despite the relatively few special fares airlines are offering this year. Last year, some passengers stayed at home because of warnings that the year-2000 computer glitch might disrupt air traffic as software timetables rolled over.
“Demand for travel has been strong all year long,” Miss Kurczewski said. “Concerns about the year 2000 kept people at home last year, but they’re making up for it this year.”
Last year, about 1.8 million passengers a day rode airlines during the Christmas season. This year, the Air Transport Association is predicting 1.88 million a day.
Hardest hit by the labor problems are United Airlines, Delta and Northwest. Pilots have been refusing to fly overtime and mechanics find reasons to take airplanes out of service.
All three airlines have gone to federal court in recent weeks to get court orders prohibiting their unions from slowdowns. In each case, an issue arose of whether workers overstepped restrictions of the Railway Labor Act, which forbids workers from disrupting travel.
United and Northwest have won court orders against their unions and Delta is appealing a judge’s refusal to grant one. Nevertheless, many pilots still refuse to work overtime and more airplanes than usual are out of service.
It might be too late to stop a strike by flight attendants for Piedmont Airlines, a commuter carrier owned by US Airways. They approved a strike in a vote this week. The 300 unionized Piedmont flight attendants want a pay scale close to the pay earned by flight attendants at Arlington-based US Airways.
Industry analysts say the labor problems are not so severe that travelers should cancel their plans.
“The party line from the unions is that they don’t intend to disrupt any of the operations,” said Robert Milmore, an airline industry analyst for the Wall Street financial firm Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder. “I think the early winter is more of a near-term concern for travelers.”
Similar predictions about a flood of passengers tied up in labor-related delays and flight cancellations preceded this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Few of the problems materialized.