CHAOS is not a full-scale walkout, but rather a sequence of sporadic, temporary strikes. David Borer, an attorney for the Association of Flight Attendants, says CHAOS may involve a variety of targets.
"Possibly one flight at a time, one city at a time, possibly shutting down the whole system for 20 minutes or an hour," Borer says. "The point of it is that the company won't know -- and the passengers won't know, and the media won't know -- when and where and how we're going to strike."
That unpredictability is causing concern among some travelers. Claire Thoen-Levine has tickets on a Northwest flight to Boston for a wedding in a week. And she's already feeling anxious about her travel plans.
"The thing that's anxiety-provoking is the randomness of a CHAOS strike, which I'm sure is why that method is chosen," Thoen-Levine says. "It makes it nearly impossible to make a plan. I don't know if I should leave a day and a half early to drive, or what we should do."
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Thoen-Levine says she'd like to go with her original travel plans, because any contingency plan would add to the expense of her trip.
CHAOS could be costly for Cindy Spellman's husband, too -- in time, if not money. He's self-employed and has been away since Wednesday for a funeral in Texas. Spellman says he has a ticket on a Northwest flight from Austin on Sunday evening, and he needs to be back to work on Monday. Despite the threat of job action, she says it's not worth trying to change his flight plans.
The rules for what an airline must do for you vary from airline to airline, because they pretty much make up the rules.
"If we voluntarily did that, we'd have to pay more and the ticket advantage would be gone. So I'm sure he will just keep the same schedule and hope that it works," Spellman says.
Travel agents have been monitoring the standoff between Northwest and the flight attendants. Wendy Weigle, vice president for travel at AAA Minneapolis, says there are a number of strategies for dealing with the threat of CHAOS. First, get to the airport early.
"Call ahead, also go online and see if your flight is scheduled to operate. And look at what other flights there are earlier or later than your planned departure, just to have your own backup plan in place in the event your flight does not operate or is delayed," Weigle says.
The flight attendants union Web site also allows Northwest passengers to sign up for e-mail notification of possible CHAOS strikes that could affect their flights.
Weigle says most of her customers are leisure travelers and have been undeterred by the threat of some kind of strike.
Some business travelers are also undeterred. Kari Schroeder, president of the North Central Business Travel Association, is in Italy right now and scheduled to return to Minnesota on Tuesday. She says she's made no contingency plans for the threatened work stoppage.
"If something happens, if by chance I'm on a flight the flight attendants don't show up for, I'm confident Northwest will make all the efforts to put me on something that's an alternative plan themselves," Schroeder says.
After checking the Northwest Airlines policy, travel expert Rudy Maxa says the carrier doesn't owe passengers anything for any work stoppage.
"The rules for what an airline must do for you vary from airline to airline, because they pretty much make up the rules. An airline will do its best generally, even if it's not their fault, to accommodate you on another flight, put you up if necessary," Maxa says. "But an airline really doesn't have to do anything for you if your delay is due to weather, or an act of God, or a strike."
For its part, Northwest Airlines won't go into detail, but says it has a plan in place to make sure flights are properly staffed and operate on a normal schedule.