Monday, December 18, 2000

Holiday drivers catch break;
fliers face headaches

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Those hitting the road for the holidays this week are getting an early Christmas gift — gas prices at their lowest level in nearly a year. And 60.6 million highway travelers are expected to take advantage.

        That includes Chris Daniels of Burlington, whose family is driving to Cleveland on Christmas Day to visit relatives.

        “I actually filled up last week when it was $1.33 a gallon, thinking it was going to go higher,” said Mrs. Daniels, 29, of gas prices that have since dropped below $1.30 at her nearby Speedway station.

        “This is a lot better than the summer,” when prices were above $2 a gallon in Cleveland and reached $1.91 locally. “We hardly ever went anywhere because of the high gas prices, but this way, we can travel and actually buy a few more presents.”

        But the estimated 39.5 million passengers taking to the air probably won't find such jolly times.

        Labor strife is flaring up at Delta Air Lines and Comair — the two main tenants of Cincin nati/Northern Kentucky International Airport — while other labor trouble, weather and crowded airports elsewhere could spell trouble.

        Comair canceled 273 flights in November, more than double the normal amount. Delta has begun scratching 100 to 125 flights a day nationally since Dec. 5. Both airlines are in the midst of contentious contract negotiations with their pilots unions.

        On the highways, the American Automobile As sociation predicts the number of Americans traveling more than 100 miles from home over the next three weeks will represent a 4 percent increase from last year.

        Those travelers will be greeted by gas prices that have slipped below the $1.50 mark nationally for the first time since August, when last summer's gasoline price crisis began to ease.

        As of Friday, the nation al average for a gallon of regular unleaded was $1.47, according to AAA. That's down from $1.53 on Nov. 15, but still higher than an average of $1.30 on Dec. 15, 1999.

        In Greater Cincinnati, Friday's average was $1.37, with some stations selling at $1.23.

        “All the attention is on home heating oil and there just isn't the demand for gas right now,” said Tom Kloza, publisher of Oil Price Information Service Energy Group's weekly newsletter. “Production is up for oil, and crude prices are down as well. Just consider it an early Christmas present.”

        For Mrs. Daniels, the difference is about $20 a week, without trips to Cleveland thrown in.

        The Air Transport Association, the airline industry's leading trade group, estimates the busiest days during this period will be Dec. 22 and 27-29.

        Possible relief from the Delta cancellations was denied when a federal judge turned down a Delta request for a temporary restraining order that would have required the pilots to return to a normal level of overtime requests.

        Company officials wouldn't estimate how many holiday flights could be canceled, saying only that decisions on cancellations are made daily, depending on crew availability.

        As for Comair, the Hebron-based regional airline went to court Thursday asking that a federal judge enforce a previous injunction barring pilots from excessive cancellations because of technical reasons or organized sickouts.

        Comair officials said the November cancellations were more than double the amount canceled in July 1998, a month after contract negotiations began.

        Contract talks among Comair, Delta and both pilots unions are in federal mediation.

        “We anticipate that crew availability will continue to impact our schedule, so all we can do is tell passengers to check ahead of time and be prepared for possible changes,” said Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski.

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