Union workers in France are set this week for their third one-day strike in a month. As a result of an earlier job action by air traffic controllers, joined by other transport employees, French airlines were forced to cancel about 80 percent of their flights, leaving travelers all over the country stranded.
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It can be frustrating if a strike interrupts your travel plans at any time. But labor disruptions can be especially crippling during the busy summer season, adding to already long lines and security wait times as travelers attempt to change their plans.
It’s not always possible to see an airline strike coming. What can you do to minimize the impact of one on your next trip?
How can you get more information about how a strike will affect you?
It’s a good idea to call your airline or your travel agent if you hear about an impending strike. You should try to get more information about whether it will affect your flights, and find out if or when you should try to switch your ticket to another carrier. If you don’t have your airline’s phone number, visit our Yellow Pages.
What does the airline owe you if a strike disrupts your travel plans?
Airlines consider labor disputes and strikes to be out of their control, or “force majeure” events. If your flight is canceled because of a strike, the airline doesn’t owe you anything other than a refund. They don’t have to help you find another flight, get a hotel room, or book a seat on another airline, and they don’t have to give you any other perks.
In actuality, during a strike situation, many airlines will attempt to make up for your inconvenience. Keep in mind that at the same time you’re trying to change your ticket, hundreds of other people are doing the same thing, so it pays to be patient and respectful of the airline employee who’s helping you.
Policies differ by the airline and specific strike-related situation, but you can check your airline’s contract of carriage to learn more.
What can you do in the event of a strike?
If it’s critical that you get to your destination when you had originally planned to, you may want to change your ticket to another airline. In many cases, other carriers will have an agreement with the striking airline, and will honor your ticket if there’s enough space on their flights. Each airline’s policy for honoring another’s tickets is different, so call ahead for more information.
Two caveats about this strategy: First, deeply discounted tickets bought through third-party vendors such as Priceline or Hotwire, and free tickets such as frequent flyer awards are often much more difficult to change than regular fare tickets. And, second, if the strike cripples an entire city’s transportation, as in the case of the French air traffic controllers strike, you may not be able to fly on any airline that day.
Another option is to reschedule your trip for when you think the strike will be over. In extraordinary circumstances like a strike, airlines will often waive their change fees, and allow you to push back your trip to another time.
Remember that strikes can last one or more days, or can recur over a few weeks. So if you’re planning to change your flight due to a strike, it’s best to wait until the last minute. If you get lucky, the striking party will go back to work the day before you’re due to travel.
Your third choice is to take the refund the airline will offer. This allows you to wait out the strike and book a new itinerary for when the labor disputes have blown over. Of course, this is much easier when the strike affects your departure city, not when you’re already en route.
To ensure that your refund goes through as smoothly as possible, make sure that you pay for your ticket with a credit card. If you’re booking online, a credit card purchase is usually your only option for payment, but you should consider booking all of your travel on a credit card even if you book off-line.
If you’re already en route, consider taking alternate transportation out of the strike-affected area to another city from where you can make your return home. Unfortunately, in the case of the French strikes, trains are also affected by the labor situation.
Will your e-ticket be honored by another airline?
In the past, if there was a strike and you planned to fly another airline, you had to convert your e-ticket to a paper one. Back then, most airline computer systems were not able to communicate with each other, so the new airline had no way to verify your reservation without the ticket in your hand.
Now, this isn’t as much of a concern. Many airlines have interline ticketing agreements and marketing partnerships, so that in many cases, an airline that will honor your ticket will be able to pull up your reservation easily. If you’re changing your ticket at the airport, be sure to have your printed confirmation or boarding pass, and a photo ID.
Will travel insurance protect your investment?
If you’re concerned that your trip might be disrupted, it’s a good idea to consider buying travel insurance. Travel Cancellation Insurance (TCI) will cover you if you have to cancel your trip for any reason, including an airline strike. Read the information on your prospective TCI policy carefully, however, and look out for clauses about strikes and labor disruptions in the fine print.
For example, your policy may not cover you if the strike was considered “foreseeable” when you bought your policy. “Foreseeable” usually means the day the workers vote to walk off the job, so be sure to buy insurance before then if you hope to be covered in the event of a strike.
For more information about travel insurance, read columnist Ed Perkins’ advice.
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