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Holiday woes signal trouble ahead for air travel

Delays and errant workers a sign of industry turmoil.

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The nation's airlines are going through the most wrenching transition in their 80-year history, and this holiday season travelers are getting a taste of what the future may be like.

Besides the cold, snow, and ice which often foul up Christmas travel, this year's record number of fliers have had to contend with fewer available flights, mountains of misplaced luggage, and, in some cases, overworked and less than helpful airline staff - all symptoms of an industry in the midst of a historic downsizing. Airlines are cutting back on routes and some may fold altogether.

It's a winter of discontent for airline employees, in particular, who face deep wage cuts that may or may not protect their jobs. Labor relations have long challenged the industry, but now the internal turmoil is becoming more apparent to passengers.

This, coupled with winter snows, adds up to a perfect storm affecting travelers like Ken Nicolson this week: His usually hour-and-a-half trip from Boston to Buffalo turned into almost 24 hours this year - about three times what it would have taken to just drive. He has done this holiday circuit for seven years. And "this year is the worst," he says. By far. When he finally arrived, his baggage was no where to be found.

While unions - particularly at troubled US Airways - have denied any organized effort, the large numbers of baggage handlers and flight attendants who called in sick indicates the stress airline employees are under. As the carriers' single largest cost center, they're the ones taking the brunt of the cost cutting, seeing their salaries reduced by as much as a third or more, even as they're asked to work longer hours for fewer benefits. That combination is having an impact on morale in a once-glamorous profession. The prospect: a permanent diminution of wages and status as discount employees.

"There's a lot of frustration among the employees, they've made significant sacrifices to keep their airlines running, their wages in many cases have been continually eroded," says George Novak of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University in Washington. "At some point it becomes important for the public and the air carriers to recognize those sacrifices."

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