What should I do if my airline goes on strike?

British Airways jetTravelers of the world, we may be witnessing a sort of airline hari kari. The union for cabin crews at British Airways, a carrier that is already tottering toward fiscal disaster, is pressing for 12 days of strikes. That would cripple the airline at a price of $50 million per day. BA, which began in 1939 as the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), may not make it. A British court blocked the strike for now, but it could be in the wings.

If it eventually happens, about one million passengers may not make it where they want to go due to canceled flights. British Airways said that it would refund or re-book stranded passengers on new flights aboard rival carriers once flights are canceled. This is the standard in most strike actions.
The hitch lies in the fact that strike-struck airlines are usually in scramble mode, and by the time flights are officially canceled, it may be too late to find seats on other carriers. Airlines that are required to deliver you to your destination are only required to do it in a timely manner.

That, of course, is a relative judgment. If other planes are booked for a while, you may be stuck waiting for a day or three, and the airline may not have decided to reimburse hotel fees until after you've had to pay them. (British Airways, for example, has yet to issue a policy on that scenario because the strike hasn't actually started.)

There's another hitch: If you change your flight and the strike is called off, causing you to miss your originally scheduled flight, you won't get your money back.

If you bought your ticket with a credit card, your issuer may reimburse you for some or all of it.

Credit card issuers will always insist that you contact the grounded airline first, because in almost all cases, the airline will find ways to accommodate their passengers on other flights, even if it's not on a schedule they would prefer. That's the advice a rep from American Express gave WalletPop. Visa and MasterCard have similar policies.

MasterCard's corporate policy, too, is to first give the airlines a chance to get you to your destination. If that fails, reimbursement is at the discretion of your issuing bank, which has the final say about whether you get a refund.

If you paid in cash or in frequent-flier miles, though, you're at the mercy of the airlines. In that case, a calm and generous manner with frazzled phone operators, who will be plodding through a maelstrom of customer fury, will go a long way toward getting you moving.

If that strike develops into a bankruptcy, your issuer is more likely to be quick to reimburse you because in that case, the product (in this case, your transportation) is less likely to have been delivered.

What about travel insurance? Usually, policies cover you as long as you booked and bought your insurance before the vote to strike. (Such as when the strike ballots are sent to a union.) Once a strike is set in motion, though, most insurance claims are denied. That's the general situation; before you purchase any policy, read the fine print for the rules concerning strikes. While you're at it, familiarize yourself with the rules surrounding bankruptcy, too.

It's as knotted as a plate of spaghetti, isn't it? It's supposed to be. The whole point of a strike is to put employers in an awkward spot. Unfortunately, especially in the airline world, customers have to go along for the ride.
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