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By Joe Brancatelli
It's been so long since a major U.S. carrier was hit by a big strike that most of us are out of practice when it comes to avoiding the negative impact. But airline strikes actually seem to be picking up elsewhere in the world. Hence the simultaneous (if unrelated) job actions mounted at Lufthansa and in Israel. And then there is the planned squestration-inspired layoff of air-traffic controllers, which government officials claim could lead to hours-long delays at major airports around the country. In other words, not a great time to be a frequent flyer. Here's how we've covered things. Like a blog, a bad Pinter play, Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along or even that one classic episode of Seinfeld, read backward for context since the latest developments are on top.
4/22/13, 9:30AM ET, MONDAY
DELAYS? COULDN'T FIND MANY ON SUNDAY
If yesterday, the first day of the air-traffic controller furloughs, is any indication, we don't have much to worry about...yet. According to FlightStats.com, the U.S. system operated 81 percent on-time Sunday (April 21). That compares favorably to last Sunday (April 14), when 78 percent of flights were on-time. Only 7 percent of flights yesterday were considered excessively late (45 minutes or more behind schedule) compared to 8 percent on Sunday, April 14.
Day-to-day comparisons for the rest of the week will be tricky, however. Last week, as you'll recall, American Airlines had the computer outage that led to two nightmarish days and there was also an awful midweek storm that messed with operations from Canada to Texas. I will look further back for reasonable apples-to-apples comparisons in the days ahead.
So far today, by the way, FlightStats.com is seeing nothing out of the ordinary. You can follow the ongoing, real-time cancellation and delay situation here.
4/22/13, 9AM ET, MONDAY
ISRAEL'S 'OPEN SKIES' STRIKE MAY WORSEN TOMORROW
The open-ended strike against Israel's three airlines caused by the fight over the Open Skies agreement with the European Community may worsen. The powerful Histadrut labor federation is calling for a sympathy strike of Israel Airport Authority employees on Tuesday, April 23. That would essentially shut down Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport and ground flights from all carriers to all destinations. Perhaps most interesting, check this story in the Jerusalem Post. It's hyper-critical of the operations and management of El Al, which officially opposes the open-skies deal.
El Al's place in Israeli society is often considered sacrosanct because the airline exists as much as a lifeline as a commercial enterprise. After all, other airlines quickly stop flying when things get messy in the Middle East. El Al, on the other hand, routinely flies on so that Israel isn't cut off from the global aviation system. It'll be fascinating to see how and if Israeli society balances El Al's symbolic value, its need to operate efficiently as an ongoing business concern and the pressures of heavier competition from other airlines.
4/22/13, 8:30AM ET, MONDAY
AS EXPECTED, LUFTHANSA IS ALL BUT GROUNDED
As expected, today's "warning" strike by the ver.di labor union essentially shut down Lufthansa worldwide. Thanks to the effects of the strike and management's decision to pre-cancel service, only a few dozen Lufthansa flights have run today. Tomorrow should be better, since the strike should end and Lufthansa has only cancelled fewer than a dozen flights tomorrow.
4/21/13, 4PM ET, SUNDAY
SEQUESTRATION AND THE SUPPOSED DELAYS
In answer to the question some of you have posed over the weekend: No, I don't know whether to believe the FAA when it says that we'll face delays of up to 3.5 hours due to sequestration-inspired furloughs of air-traffic controllers. One thing I do know: The lawsuit filed this week against the FAA by the ridiculously named Airlines for America (the industry's lobbying group) won't amount to much.
Since the sequestration began on March 1, I have been skeptical about its impact on business travel. The TSA quickly backed off its threat to cut screeners and force lengthy (or lengthier) security-checkpoint lines. The air-tower closures I wrote about a few weeks back (see here) and said wouldn't mean much to us never actually happened. A blizzard of lawsuits led the FAA to delay any tower shutdowns until June 15.
But furloughing air-traffic controllers could be problematic. I hate to say we'll have to wait and see when we get to the airports starting tomorrow, but I think we do, in fact, have to wait and see.
The cynic in me (that's 85 percent of my total body mass) says that the Obama Administration will quickly find a way to avoid this. After all, their earlier bluffs on sequestration fell flat and the nation is in no mood for silliness after the Boston bombings and the terrible incident that killed more than a dozen in West, Texas. Besides, riding to the rescue at the last moment and avoiding the furloughs (or, at least, the flight delays) is a better story for the Administration.
But, hey, this is politics. And it's not like the Republicans, who've lately embraced the sequester with gusto, are above cutting off their noses to spite the nation's face, either.
So we will, uh, have to wait and see ...
4/21/13, 3:30PM ET, SUNDAY
THIS IS FERSHLUGINA*
The unions at Israel's three leading airlines--El Al, Arkia and Israir--hit the picket lines at 5 a.m. local time today. Their complaint: They are vehemently opposed to an "open skies" agreement between Israel and European Union countries. The Israeli cabinet approved the pact today.
Although there were heavy cancellations on regional flights and service to Europe, the strike was not supposed to affect El Al's routes between the United States and Israel. Yeah, well, best-laid plans... On the latest list of schedule changes and cancellations released by El Al (view it here), there is now at least one scrubbed flight: LY27 from Tel Aviv to New York/Kennedy for tomorrow (Monday, April 22) has now been cancelled.
More worrisome: Unlike tomorrow's "warning strike" at Lufthansa, this is an "open-ended" job action with no set end date. That signals to me that El Al will be dumping more U.S.-to-Israel service if the strike continues.
Alternatives? Both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines fly nonstop to Tel Aviv.
*And, yes, I know that's Yiddish, not Hebrew. But, really, how much fun is saying lo tov?
4/20/13, 11:30PM ET, SATURDAY
PUTTING YOUR HEAD ON A BED AT A GERMAN AIRPORT
If you get caught at a German airport during the strike, there is a bit of good news. The airport hotels in Germany tend to be top-notch.
In Frankfurt, ignore the old standby, the aging and ugly Sheraton, and focus on the two Hilton properties that recently opened. They are across the corridor from each other in The Squaire, the shopping and office complex connected to Frankfurt Airport and directly above the inter-city Deutsche Bahn station. The Hilton Garden Inn is often 50 euros per night cheaper than the Hilton Frankfurt Airport, so I'd suggest that one. But the Hilton is just fine, too. Both are very near to the Rewe shop in The Squaire. It has an extensive take-away buffet (the cucumber salad is excellent) and decent baked goods. Plenty of bottled beer to go, too.
At Munich Airport, aim for the Kempinski. It's located between the two terminals, is truly a deluxe property and may be the best airport hotel in Europe. If you can't find a room there, the Novotel will do. It's rather bland, but less than three years old and perfectly fine. And let's hope you've listened to me all those times I told you to get Platinum Status in Accor's LeClub loyalty program. It's for times like this, when you suddenly find yourself at a Novotel.
At Dusseldorf International, the Sheraton Dusseldorf Airport Hotel is the incumbent. It's quite good. Some German travelers I know swear by the Maritim. It is nice, but if you're not familiar with traditional German service, you may find the staff and service cold, inflexible and rather austere.
4/20/13, 3PM ET, SATURDAY
LUFTHANSA GOES DOWN MONDAY--TOMORROW, TOO
There's a strike due at Lufthansa on Monday, April 22, and the German carrier announced a massive amount of pre-emptive cancellations for tomorrow, April 21, as well as Monday. The ver.di union has called what Europeans describe as a "warning" strike Monday at Lufthansa's hubs and some other German airports. The dispute is over contract negotiations.
Lufthansa has responded by wiping out virtually all of its intra-German schedule, much of its intra-Europe operation and many long-haul international flights for Monday. Moreover, it has cancelled virtually all U.S.-originating flights that are due to depart for Germany tomorrow. The airline has published the complete list of cancellations here.
If you're scheduled to fly Lufthansa tomorrow or Monday (and, remember, many United Airlines and Air Canada flights are code-shares on Lufthansa-operated aircraft), consult the cancellation list carefully. United has also put up a brief notice here. And full details on reaccommodations and refunds from Lufthansa are here.
Also worth noting: Lufthansa subsidiaries Swiss International, Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines are not affected by the strike, but remember that some of their operations are code-shares on Lufthansa. Lufthansa's short-haul subsidiary, Germanwings, is not affected by the strike action.
If your travel is supposed to take you to Frankfurt, Munich or Dusseldorf over the weekend, American, US Airways and Delta Air Lines offer flights from their hubs. United also operates some nonstops to Germany with its own aircraft. Air Berlin also flies nonstop to Germany from several U.S. cities. And Singapore Airlines operates a New York/JFK-Frankfurt nonstop.
If your destination is elsewhere in Germany, remember that the German railroad Deutsche Bahn (http://www.deutschebahn.com) has extensive service, much of it leaving directly from a station conveniently connected to Frankfurt Airport. However, be aware: Monday will be a difficult day on Deutsche Bahn since most of Germany will be trying to get around the country via rail rather than plane. For that matter, even if you get to a German airport, expect long lines, lots of delays and many very unhappy travelers.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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