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Possible strikes worry fliers

Paper tickets, rather than electronic ones, are your best insurance against the strikes, none of which is likely to happen before April 1.

It is too soon to panic about potential airline strikes, say some professionals, but not every one is listening.

"We are panicking," said travel agent Valeri French of French Worldwide Travel in Newington, Conn. "The only thing I can recommend is to book with an airline that isn't having labor problems: US Airways, TWA and Southwest.

"What we are telling (our) customers is that if it gets that far and there is a strike, it won't last that long. It's too costly to the airline and the nation's economy."

But that's cold comfort for anyone who must make a business meeting or has a long-planned vacation.

Besides, even a brief strike by the Delta pilots, the American flight attendants or mechanics at United will worsen conditions in an air transport system that struggles even on its best days.

President Bush on March 9 invoked a federal law denying the mechanics of Northwest the right to strike for 60 days _ until mid-May _ to provide more negotiating time.

For more information, go to the Web site http://www. nwa.com and click on "latest labor negotiations update" or see http://www.the-mechanic.com/ amfapage.html.

But even one airline canceling or delaying hundreds of flights can cause havoc, as desperate passengers try to find seats on planes already flying close to capacity. And the traveling public knows it.

Travel agents report numerous telephone calls, a large number of them from parents concerned about trips planned for the April school breaks, cruise passengers who might miss a ship if a flight is canceled and business travelers who don't have flexible plans.

Agents generally are advising customers to have paper tickets, instead of electronic tickets. If an airline is struck, its tickets usually will be honored by other airlines first come, first served, and a paper ticket serves as stronger proof that a seat has been bought.

A quick look at the labor situation:

Some agents reportedly are steering passengers away from Delta, considered the most vulnerable to a strike. Delta announced last week that it will have a first-quarter loss on its stock after having reduced its flight schedule through the first three months of this year by 2.7 percent, largely because its 9,800 pilots have refused to volunteer for overtime flights.

The pilots voted Feb. 12 to strike. The Air Line Pilots Association, their union and the carrier were to resume negotiations late last week, though both sides had requested a release from talks set by the National Mediation Board.

A release would trigger a 30-day countdown, after which workers could strike.

Delta is the country's third-largest carrier. For more information, visit http://www.dalpa.com and click on "consumer info."

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, representing American's 23,000 flight attendants, had also asked to be released from Mediation Board negotiations, saying there had been no progress. That was denied, and further talks were held last week.

Even if those negotiations fail to reach agreement, there still would be a 30-day cooling-off period. For more information, visit http://www.flightattendant- afa.org.

United's mechanics also have asked the Mediation Board to release them from negotiations with the airline, citing lack of progress, but the board has declined.

Talks resumed in mid-February, but there have been work slowdowns by mechanics at some of the busiest airports, such as those serving New York City.

The union representing United's mechanics has a Web site, http://www.iam141m.org/ ual.htm.

The possibility of a strike at any airline was lessened this month when Bush said he would take steps to prevent airline strikes this year.

Nonetheless, there is growing anxiety among passengers. What can you do now to relieve those concerns?

Breathe easy if you are flying before April 1. That's the earliest that any of the airlines would be subject to a strike, due to those federal restrictions. Of the potential strikers, Delta's pilots probably would be the first to go.

Meanwhile, make sure you get a paper ticket. Some airlines now charge a fee for what used to be the standard paper tickets, but it's good strike insurance if you must switch airlines.

Also, if you think you might have to switch airlines, make sure you know which other carriers fly to your destination and be familiar with their schedules.

Carry their telephone numbers _ and that of your travel agent _ with you so you don't waste time.

Information from Cox News Service was used in this report.

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