Bill Rich absolutely, positively has to be in San Francisco next week and back in Florida three days later.
With Delta Air Lines pilots threatening a strike to shut down the carrier as soon as next Tuesday, Rich decided Monday to ditch his Delta tickets and buy a much pricier, longer flight on American Airlines.
"It cost me a lot more," said Rich, a pharmaceutical company executive who lives in east Hillsborough County. "But the unknown was not worth it to me."
No one knows if bankrupt Delta and its pilots union can work out a deal on pay cuts in time to avert a strike.
It's also unclear whether pilots will risk a strike that Delta insists would kill the wobbly airline and eliminate 50,000 jobs, including their own. Most airline and financial experts doubt pilots will take that step.
That leaves hundreds of thousands of travelers who are ticketed to fly on Delta next week in the lurch. They can buy tickets on another airline at premium prices or take the chance Delta will keep flying.
If pilots do strike next week, "it will have huge impacts during one of the busiest times of the year," said Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International Airport.
When airlines shut down, competitors typically agree to fly stranded passengers in empty seats for a fee not to exceed $50 one way. But April is Florida's busiest month and most carriers are flying planes packed with spring breakers and families on Easter vacation.
"If you can't get a seat on Delta, getting a seat on another airline will be difficult as well," Miller said. Delta is the No. 2 airline at Tampa International, carrying 15 percent of all passengers.
Last week, Delta's nearly 6,000 pilots voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike after next Monday if an arbitration panel lets the airline void their contract.
The panel is scheduled to rule by Saturday.
Delta has proposed $305-million a year in pay cuts, while the pilots offered $140-million. Capt. Lee Moak, head of the pilots union, repeated the strike threat Monday. The pilots made $1-billion in annual concessions in 2004.
"Delta senior executives seem intent on rejection instead of negotiations," he said in a prepared statement. "A strike grows more and more likely as our deadline looms without meaningful negotiations or results."
Most financial analysts dismiss the threat as a negotiating tool common in airline labor talks.
Delta has no plans to operate during a strike, spokesman Bruce Hicks said.
Lenders keeping the company afloat would pull their financing even if Delta was grounded a single day, he said.
"We're an airline operating on borrowed money and borrowed time," Hicks said. "The stakes are very high."
Delta is telling customers they should be confident booking flights because the airline expects to reach an agreement with pilots. Should Delta stop flying, Hicks said, customers will get full refunds and can switch to other carriers.
The airline has lost revenue from travelers who switched to other airlines, he said, but declined to say how much.
Chuck Lynch, a textbook salesman from Atlanta, booked his flights next week to New York and Boston on competitors AirTran Airways and US Airways.
"We talked to our travel agents in the Northeast, and they think (a strike) is a significant risk," he said.
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