US Airways hurt by passengers' plight

Stranded patrons' anger with ailing airline rising

December 28, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - For a fifth day yesterday, US Airways travelers searched and waited angrily for their luggage, and many vowed never to fly the airline again, a sentiment that analysts said could doom the company.

"I don't plan to fly US Airways again. Ever," Burch Alford of Boston said while looking for three bags yesterday that had been lost in Philadelphia since Thursday. "They should have made it a good workplace so as not to have annoyed their workers."

"I wish they would go bankrupt," said Jay Baffa of Bryn Mawr, Pa. "They'd do us all a favor."

Much is at stake for US Airways, the dominant carrier in the Philadelphia region and seventh-largest nationwide. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September and anticipates that negative publicity over its passengers' woes could cost it $100 million in lost bookings through February.

The airline's survival hinges on continued passenger confidence, analysts said, and stranding passengers and their luggage for days - as US Airways did over the Christmas weekend as hundreds of workers called in sick - could drive away even more customers.

"It opens the final chapter," said Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Radnor, Pa.-based Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group. "When employees do something that harms customers and a company's ability to grow future revenues, it shows that they have given up."

As many as 240 baggage handlers and ground crew - up to a third of the daily staffing level - called in sick at one point during the Christmas travel rush, said a source at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, speaking on condition that he not be identified.

He called the actions uncoordinated, individual expressions of anger, not an intentional job protest.

"They knew it would cause a huge problem, but they just don't care anymore. They've been beaten down so much," he said. He said many workers, including those who showed up, were angry at being ordered to work extended shifts over the holidays at the lower levels of pay and benefits imposed by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

A spokesman for the union, based in Washington, did not return calls for comment.

The company issued a two-paragraph statement detailing efforts by most workers to solve the problems.

"US Airways deeply regrets any inconvenience caused to customers whose travel plans may have been disrupted. US Airways' focus remains on returning our operations to normal and providing customers with the service they expect and deserve," the carrier said.

Its Christmas debacle began with a winter storm in the Midwest on Wednesday that affected many carriers but quickly grew into chaos for the Arlington, Va.-based airline. Systemwide, US Airways canceled approximately 65 flights Thursday, 180 Friday, 140 Saturday, 43 Sunday and 15 yesterday.

In Philadelphia, where the biggest problems occurred, thousands of passengers arrived Thursday and Friday and their bags quickly piled up.

With a shortage of baggage workers there, the airline was forced to rent semitrailer trucks and use several aircraft solely to ferry the mountain of bags to its hub in Charlotte, N.C., where they were to be sorted and rerouted to their destinations.

On Sunday in a telephone message to employees, US Airways Chief Executive Officer Bruce Lakefield accused "a few" disgruntled baggage workers and flight attendants of making many more than normal requests for sick time and helping cause "an operational meltdown."

Mollie McCarthy, Philadelphia local president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said flight attendants went "above and beyond the call of duty. ... No matter how angry you may be with management, you don't hurt passengers. This is not their fight."

Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta asked the department's inspector general, Office of Aviation and International Affairs and Office of General Counsel yesterday to investigate the problems at US Airways. He also sought an investigation of Comair, the Delta Air Lines partner that canceled 1,100 flights Saturday because of a computer shutdown.

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