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What will happen to my tickets if Delta strikes?

The possibility of a [% 336286 | | crippling strike at Delta Air Lines %] has lots of travelers worried about their travel plans and the money they have tied up in tickets. One reader says, “We have round-trip tickets to Europe on Delta starting May 8, and I’m worried about a possible strike. We already have hotel reservations and a tight schedule. What is the best strategy for getting replacement flights if Delta strikes?”

The answer, of course, depends on several factors.

1. For starters, my guess is Delta and its pilots will come to some sort of agreement before this game of “chicken” comes to an unhappy end. But, for now, a strike is still possible. This wouldn’t be the first time airline people have made self-destructive decisions.

2. If the pilots—a majority or all of them—go out, Delta will almost certainly have to cancel most of its flights. The line will be able to complete a few flights with supervisory personnel, but those will be a small fraction of the total.

3. In the event of a partial or complete shutdown, Delta would almost surely sign over its tickets to other legacy lines—American, Continental, Northwest, United, and US Airways—and a few smaller ones. However, I suspect it would impose some sort of limit on how far into the future it would agree to reassign its tickets.

4. The way the system works, if you can’t make the trip, you’ll probably get a full refund on your air tickets, through Delta or your charge card.

5. If Delta does shut down, either totally or almost totally, your plans will be disrupted—a little in a few cases, a lot in most others. With other airlines operating at the highest load factors since World War II, they can’t possibly shoulder the full load of Delta passengers for many months to come.

6. On the bright side, you’ll be fine if your Delta ticket is for a flight that is actually operated by another line, on a code share—as long as you don’t need a Delta flight to connect with your code-shared flight.

What we don’t know

1. Delta has warned a pilot strike would quickly result in complete financial failure and a permanent shutdown of the line as it now exists. Is that a bluff or is it for real? I sure don’t know.

2. If the company and its pilots can’t reach an agreement, Delta might arrange a last-minute buy-out by one of the other legacy lines—Continental and Northwest have been nominated by the trade press as potential Delta partners. Would a buy-out of the entire company buy some extra time from the unions? Maybe, but again, nobody knows for sure.

3. If Delta should actually fold, other lines would undoubtedly figure out ways to acquire some of Delta’s planes and recruit some of its employees, but not without weeks or months of confusion and disruption.

4. There’s a big question about whether the provisions of the governmental “protection” legislation would kick in during a strike. You’ve probably read about the [% 286125 | | law%]; it requires surviving lines to carry travelers ticketed on a failed line, on a standby basis, for no more than $50 each way. But as I read the bill, it applies in the case of complete failure, not temporary shutdown due to a strike. Right now, I couldn’t say whether other lines would abide by that rule or not—at least unless and until Delta actually folded.

5. If you hold a frequent flyer award ticket on Delta, it’s not at all clear whether you could get Delta’s frequent flyer partners— Continental, Northwest, and the several foreign lines—to accept that ticket. Even if they agree to accept Delta frequent flyer tickets, you’ll have a tough time finding seats. It’s highly unlikely that Delta would be able to sign a frequent flyer ticket over to any other airlines—chances are, they wouldn’t accept it. And if you hold a paid ticket with a frequent flyer upgrade, Delta can sign the base economy ticket over to another airline but not the upgrade.

6. Nobody knows how non-airline suppliers would react. If the strike prevents you from getting to a vacation rental, for example, would the owner/manager refund some or all of a nonrefundable prepayment? How about a prepaid all-inclusive vacation package? Such companies were pretty generous and flexible immediately following 9/11, but would they be as forgiving because of a strike? If you miss a cruise sailing, the cruise line would probably allow you to reschedule, provided you arranged your air ticket through the cruise line, but the story could be different if you arranged your own airfare. On any given arrangement, your guess is as good as mine.

Assess your risk

Given these circumstances, your optimum strategy for coping with a possible strike and shutdown depends on how much you have at risk:

  • If you absolutely have to be somewhere, as planned, you should probably get busy right away making alternative flight arrangements. Whether your trip is for an important business meeting or a major vacation, if you have a lot at risk, you have to protect it. If Delta really does go out, already-tight seat inventories will just about disappear; so if you think you’ll need new flights, rebook before you’re competing with everyone else. If possible, buy either refundable tickets or tickets on an airline that will credit what you pay in the event Delta is still flying for your trip. Or, on a domestic trip, get out the atlas and figure out your driving route.
  • If your trip isn’t critical, you can try to make alternative arrangements, but you probably don’t want to spend a lot more money on them. Instead, plan to wait out the situation. If Delta is still flying, you’re OK. If it does shut down, figure on getting either refunds for, or rescheduling of, any vacation component for which you’ve prepaid.

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