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What Really Happened in the 1993 American Flight Attendants Strike

Tickers in this article: AAMRQ LCC

MIAMI ( TheStreet) -- In what was possibly the last major U.S. airline strike ever, American Airlines management was not as befuddled as it may have appeared to be, a one-time top American executive said.

While many planes flew empty during the five-day flight attendants strike that ended the Monday before Thanksgiving 1993, it wasn't because the airline anticipated that flight attendants would staff every aircraft, the former executive said.

Rather, the airline's strategy was to carry mail and cargo, to staff the flights that did have flight attendant crews -- eventually one-quarter to one-third of flights -- and to have aircraft in position when Thanksgiving travel resumed.

The former executive recalled details of the strike after reading recent coverage recalling its 20 th anniversary. He asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak by American.

Following the merger of American and US Airways , expected next month, four major airlines will carry about 77% of all U.S. airline passengers. "With all the consolidation, the airlines are too big to strike, too big to fail," said aviation consultant Bob Mann. "The 1993 American strike was the beginning of the end of the ability to strike a major airline. There will never be another strike at a major airline."

The strike began Thursday, Nov. 18, 1993, one week before Thanksgiving. Most of American's early morning flights took off, but few carried passengers, because federal regulations require that flight attendants staff aircraft that carry passengers.

"We simply didn't know on that morning how many flight attendants would show up," the former executive said. "So we made the decision to keep the airplanes flying. We decided, a couple of days before the strike, that the best thing for the passengers and everybody involved was to keep the aircraft and pilots in place, to carry cargo and mail on every flight, and to carry passengers on every flight we could."

Many observers had the impression, at the time, that American flew empty planes because it failed to anticipate that flight attendants would not show up. But that wasn't the case, the former executive said. "We wanted to keep the system in sync," he said.

Although the vast majority of flight attendants honored the picket lines, a small number eventually crossed. (It was never clear how many, but estimates are around 20% or less.) "For a couple of days, we had many flights where we found out shortly before (departure) that we could not crew them," the executive said. But by the third day, the airline had a fairly good idea which flights would be staffed and be able to carry passengers. "We began to zero in on those flights," he said.

On Monday, Nov. 21, 1993, President Clinton brokered a settlement. That meant airplanes were in place to carry passengers on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the year's heaviest travel day. "By Tuesday evening, we were back to operating most flights," the former executive said. "I breathed a sigh of relief that we had aircraft and pilots in place, making it much easier to schedule the flight attendants onto the flights."