Invoking seldom-used emergency powers, President Clinton intervened early today, moments after midnight, to halt a strike by American Airlines pilots that had threatened to disrupt air travel nationwide.
The action - the first such move by a president in an airline strike in 31 years - will keep American’s planes flying for at most 60 days while negotiations continue.
In taking the action Clinton said “severe disruption to both domestic and international air transportation.” He called on the two parties to “redouble efforts” to reach an agreement.
Clinton took the steps after refusing to tip his hand Friday on whether he would intervene, hoping that the pressure of the deadline would force the parties to agree. But the airline and representatives of its 9,000 pilots were unable to resolve festering differences over wages and whether lesser-paid pilots should be permitted to fly American’s smaller, commuter jets.
Faced with disruption to the nation’s transportation system at the start of a long holiday weekend, Clinton invoked powers he has under the 1926 Railway Labor Act, after the National Mediation Board, which was conducting the talks, recommended he intervene.
Clinton ignored objections from the pilots, who were counting on the leverage of their strike.
He appointed a three-member mediation panel, which has 30 days to devise recommendations. The parties would have another 30 days to consider them, with no work stoppage in the meantime.
While American’s other unions are opposed to the pilots’ efforts, the company said would not operate if its 9,000 pilots struck.
Since American carries roughly 20 percent of the nation’s air travelers - and is a dominant airline in cities like Miami, Dallas, and Chicago - a strike would have stranded travelers nationwide.
American chairman Robert L. Crandall had estimated that a strike would cost the airline $50 million a day, or $3 billion for a two-month strike. A U.S. Department of Transportation study estimated the daily cost to the U.S. economy would run more than $100 million.
American canceled 129 flights Friday night - 83 to international cities and 46 between U.S. airports - in preparation for a shutdown.
Already Friday night in Miami, grumbling passengers were giving up on finding flights to Latin America and the Caribbean. With some flights canceled and others filled, and no other airlines flying some routes, some passengers threw up their hands and went home. In other airports, travelers groaned about flights canceled, or they shifted to roundabout connections in places they never wanted to visit.
Some wondered whether they would be able to get back from where they were going, while others scrambled for seats on other airlines.
Al Light, a 44-year-old logistics inspector, found himself stuck in Chicago on Friday night without a flight home to Harrisburg, Pa. “They announced on the loudspeaker that the pilot had walked off the plane,” he said.
“Now I’m going to miss my plane, which means I’ll miss seeing my wife on Valentine’s Day.”