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TIA braces
for travel scramble

photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Bruce Carnevale sits Tuesday in Tampa International Airport waiting for his flight to Philadelphia on US Airways. Carnevale, who travels on business, called around seeking alternate transportation for next week in case of a shutdown.

Facing a strike, US Airways says it will shut down all flights. Wise passengers will obtain paper copies of their electronic tickets.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


TAMPA -- Bruce Carnevale sat alone in Airside F at Tampa International Airport Tuesday, briefcase open on his knees, date book open in the briefcase, cellular phone to his ear. His expression was that of a man finding out he couldn't get there from here.

"I'm just trying to find out how I'm going to get to Knoxville, Roanoke and Wilmington next week," Carnevale said. "There aren't many alternatives, and none of them is very good. I either drive a long way to a different airport or drive a long way to my appointments after I land."

Carnevale, a sales representative from Philadelphia, is one of thousands struggling this week with travel requirements that bump heads with the real possibility of a shutdown early Saturday of US Airways and its low-fare affiliate, MetroJet.

Such action would cancel a total of 2,046 daily flights into more than 100 airports, including 82 arrivals and 82 departures at Tampa International. Nationwide, it has the potential to strand hundreds of thousands of passengers who cannot find seats on flights with other airlines.

Another 2,618 flights by US Airways Express and US Airways Shuttle would not be affected.

The shutdown is the airline's threatened reaction to plans by the Association of Flight Attendants to strike selected flights, including many from Tampa, at the close of a 30-day cooling off period early Saturday. Rather than have flight attendants walk off some flights, the airline said it would shut down all flights.

The airline was urging passengers who hold electronic tickets and want to rebook with other airlines to bring those tickets to a US Airways ticket office, a travel agent or to the ticket counter at Tampa International Airport and exchange them for paper tickets as soon as possible.

Other airlines will honor US Airways reservations at no extra charge, but they do not have the ability to exchange e-tickets.

There didn't seem to be a great rush Tuesday to make an exchange at TIA. Most passengers in line at the ticket counter were waiting to check baggage. US Airways personnel said flights were full through Monday and passengers weren't yet canceling.

US Airways flight attendants at TIA, who spoke only anonymously because they said they feared retaliation, said the issues were economic. They have been working for more than three years without a contract, and the last contract gave them only a 4 percent increase in pay. Their pay scale runs from about $17,000 to about $40,000 after 14 years.

They stressed that their planned job action would not have shut down the airline and they would have targeted only flights where passengers had alternatives with other airlines.

US Airways said such a random action would have been more destructive than a system-wide shutdown because passengers would have been uncertain whether their flights were operating.

The world's fifth-largest carrier, US Airways has 45,000 employees, 1,900 in the Tampa Bay area. How many of them would be furloughed during a shutdown was unknown.

Some fliers who regularly use US Airways said they would not feel the effect of a shutdown at all. It seemed to depend on where they had to go. While Carnevale struggled to find alternative service, hospital consultant Randy Yeager said he didn't anticipate any problems.

"I fly into Richmond out of Charlotte regularly, but I have an alternative. I can go on Delta," said Yeager, of Sarasota. "I can also fly AirTran. It really won't affect me. I'm going to Virginia on April 3, and I'm already booked on Delta. It flies everywhere I need to go."

At the airport, preparations were under way as if the shutdown were a certainty. Police will be on hand to help handle the crowds if a lot of ticket holders find themselves stuck during the weekend, according to airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan.

Geoghagan added that US Airways told her it will have ticketing personnel on duty "around the clock" to find alternative travel.

A shutdown lasting any length of time could cost the airport dearly.

The airlines collect and return to the airport a $3 ticket surcharge on every passenger departing TIA. This charge helps fund airport improvements.

"US Airways flies 3,422 seats out of here on a daily basis," Geoghagan said. "This time of year, the flights average 90 percent occupancy, which means the airport would lose $9,240 per day."

That could be slightly offset if passengers find seats on other airlines.

But there is no way to offset the landing fees the airlines pay, which average $4,620 a day.

"That doesn't include the loss in parking revenue or revenue from food and beverages and the airport shops," Geoghagan said. "The losses will pile up quickly."

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