Wed, Dec 29, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US to investigate airline problems

HOLIDAY CHAOS More than 30,000 travelers in the US were left stranded after a series of missteps by airlines, and the government wants to know why

AFP , WASHINGTON

The US government has launched a full-fledged investigation of what it called severe disruptions in Christmas air travel that resulted in at least 30,000 passengers being stranded in airports around the country.

Adding to the overall sense of chaos were nearly 10,000 pieces of undelivered luggage piled up on Christmas Day in Philadelphia because baggage handlers of cash-strapped US Airways called in sick in droves.

On Monday, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta declared himself "deeply concerned" and ordered his department's inspector-general to join forces with other units to conduct a thorough investigation.

"It is important that the department and the traveling public understand what happened, why it happened, and whether the carriers properly planned for the holiday travel period and responded appropriately to consumer needs in the aftermath," Mineta said in a memorandum to Kenneth Mead.

Aside from US Airways, the probe will target Comair, a regional subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, whose computer breakdown plunged the system into disarray.

Unable to properly schedule its flight crews, the carrier was forced to cancel as many as 1,100 flights on Saturday, leaving thousands of restless passengers, anxious to join their families for the holiday, stranded, sometimes sleeping on the floor in as many as 119 airports.

The electronic woes pursued Comair through the weekend, and even on Monday, it was able to operate only 60 percent of its 1,160 daily flights.

The company said it expected its flight operations to return to normal only by mid-week.

A glitch of a different kind dogged US Airways, the seventh-largest US airline now in Chapter 11 (bankruptcy protection) reorganization, whose ground crews face a court-imposed pay cut next month.

As many as 240 of its baggage handlers and other service personnel in Philadelphia -- or about a third of the scheduled work force at that particular location -- called in sick on Christmas Day, according to union officials.

Among flight attendants sick calls were three times higher than normal.

"US Airways has a full-scale employee mutiny on its hands," commented Michael Boyd, an industry consultant.

The union denies it was an organized labor protest, but the no-show, coupled with snowy weather in the Mideast, contributed to the service meltdown.

US Airways had to cancel approximately 65 flights on Thursday, 180 on Friday, 140 on Saturday, 43 on Sunday and 15 on Monday, said industry officials.

The Arlington, Virginia-based carrier said it was "embarrassed by the situation" and "deeply regrets any inconvenience caused to customers."

But many of its passengers still remained without their bags, which were being ferried by plane and truck to Charlotte, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for sorting, according to company officials.

Mead, the inspector-general, said the probe will focus on the industry's compliance with a 1999 agreement aimed at improveing the quality of passenger service that has so far allowed airlines to avoid congressionally-mandated standards.

Comair promised full cooperation, US Airways had no official comment.

But the episode, economists said, has cast doubt on the Virginia carrier's ability to emerge from bankruptcy -- and was likely to exacerbate the financial woes of Delta, also teetering on the brink of collapse.

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