United strike could cripple Aspen travel | AspenTimes.com

United strike could cripple Aspen travel

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

United Airlines mechanics voted against an employment contract Tuesday and called for a strike, decisions that could wreak havoc with travelers to Aspen this winter.

The mechanics could walk out next Wednesday. If all United flights are canceled locally, one travel official said the number of travelers left stranded would be “far larger than possibly could be reaccommodated on other flights and airlines.”

In Aspen, United Airlines flies 11 of the 16 flights into the Aspen Airport on winter’s peak-season weekdays, and 14 of 22 flights on weekends.

Bill Tomcich of Stay Aspen-Snowmass said his company has booked every flight available through the end of March.

“We have a lot of people coming to town,” he said.

Mechanics at the nation’s No. 2 air carrier rejected a contract offer after a recommendation was made by a presidentially appointed emergency mediation board. The offer included a 37 percent raise for some workers, making them the industry’s highest-paid mechanics. But the contract also would have required the workers to give some of their wages back to the airline, which has struggled since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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Of the 90 percent of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers that voted on Tuesday, 68 percent voted to reject the offer, and 86 percent voted to authorize a strike. The walkout could begin on Feb. 20, unless there is a last-minute settlement or if President Bush asks Congress to intervene and impose a settlement.

According to a statement from United Airlines, the two sides will re-enter negotiations so that “an agreement can be reached or a new proposal advanced.

“If progress is made, and there is no reason to believe that it can’t be, then we anticipate that another vote will occur by mid-March, without interruption of operations,” United CEO Jack Creighton said in the statement.

A similar statement was released by Tom Buffenbarger, international president of the Machinists Union.

“We will travel anywhere and meet around the clock if necessary for the next six days to reach an agreement,” he said, adding a plea for President Bush and Congress to “stay out of this.”

Gov. Bill Owens urged President Bush and Congress to intervene in the United Airlines labor dispute, saying a strike could have a devastating effect in Colorado, according to The Associated Press.

Locally, Tomcich noted that Aspen has had its fair share of threatened and actual airline strikes in the past. In February 1997, American Airlines almost shut down with a threatened pilot walkout. Even though the airline only flies into the Eagle Airport, Tomcich said the strike that was settled at the last minute “would have had a huge impact” in Aspen.

In the fall of 1999, Northwest Airlines pilots went through with a walkout, shutting down for two weeks. Since only one daily Northwest flight was flying in and out of Aspen, Tomcich said the strike’s local impacts were limited.

Most recently, Air Wisconsin pilots, who fly into Aspen under a contract as United Express, threatened to strike in August after failed negotiations over the terms of their employment. An hour after the strike deadline had passed, negotiators came to an agreement and the strike was averted.

“As this strike relates to United globally, nationally and in Aspen, it would be far more severe than any of these three strikes,” Tomcich said. But he also said he thinks the chance of this strike happening is “very, very slim.”

“My belief, after reading [the statement from United Airlines] is that it’s hard to believe that either the mechanics or United wouldn’t try to make progress toward an agreement,” he said. “If they don’t, it’s hard to believe Congress would allow it to happen, but we may not know until the 11th hour.”