United Airlines, the country's second-largest carrier, has been in Chapter 11 for more than a year; so has Hawaiian Airlines. These carriers are still flying, as are America West and Continental, which paid visits to bankruptcy court in the 1990s.
"Customers should notice no changes to flight operations or customer service programs because of the filing," US Airways said in a press release earlier this month.
So no worries, right? Not necessarily. This time around for the country's seventh-largest airline may be different, and that's why travelers should take notice — and take precautions.
US Airways has already been bailed out once, with $900 million in federal loan guarantees.
At the Travel section's press time Tuesday, US Airways' unions were balking at a second round of concessions, totaling $800 million, that the airline says it needs to survive.
And it's not just US Airways that's having trouble. Low fares and high fuel costs have driven the whole industry into crisis.
"It's uncharted territory," said Mike Boyd, industry analyst and president of the Boyd Group/Aviation Systems Research Corp. in Evergreen, Colo., noting that among major airlines only Continental has gone into and out of bankruptcy twice and survived.
Adding to uncertainty for travelers: A federal law that protected passengers will soon expire. It requires airlines, "to the extent practicable," to re-ticket passengers stranded by a bankruptcy.
Congress enacted the little-noticed law in November 2001 as Section 145 of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It was renewed in December 2003 and is scheduled to expire Nov. 19.
"We have not heard of any efforts to extend it," said Steve Hansen, communications director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in mid-September.
The law, as interpreted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, requires airlines to honor tickets of passengers stranded by a bankruptcy "on a space-available basis" on the date of travel. Airlines can't charge more than $25 each way for this accommodation.
Section 145 has critics.
"It gives consumers a false sense of security," said Edward Hasbrouck, author of the Practical Nomad guidebooks and "travel guru" at http://www.air treks.com, an online travel agency specializing in around-the-world tickets.
"Space available" is a meaningless guarantee if there is no space, which would likely be the case on many routes if a big airline such as US Airways stopped operating, he said. After the much-smaller Vanguard Airlines went out of business two years ago, some passengers waited for days to be re-ticketed.
Further, according to DOT guidelines, the airline that accommodates you must "operate on the route for which the passenger is ticketed." That may not be much help if you're, say, flying abroad from Charlotte, N.C., where US Airways is the sole U.S. operator on many international routes, Hasbrouck noted.
But some protection is better than none, especially considering the DOT's January 2003 notice recounting arguments that airlines filed against the $25 limit:
"American argues that in a deregulated environment passengers should assume the risk in booking with a financially weak carrier," the DOT said. Further, it said, Delta and American contended that the marketplace should determine the re-ticketing fee — in this case, the $100 or so that many airlines charge passengers who voluntarily change their plans.