Tuesday August 8, 3:38 am Eastern Time

United Airlines Scraps More Flights

CHICAGO (AP) -- United Airlines is canceling nearly 2,000 flights next month, the latest blow as the world's largest airline struggles to improve relations with its pilots.

United will take 1,980 flights off its September schedule, spokesman Chris Braithwaite said Monday. The airline had already canceled 4,800 flights from May through the end of August after pilots announced they would no longer work overtime.

United had the worst on-time arrival rate of major carriers in May, the latest month for which such figures are available. The airline, which canceled more than 240 flights Monday, has also blamed poor weather for some of its woes.

United says its pilots are refusing to work overtime since their contract expired in April and have increasingly been calling in sick. But the pilots say there is no organized work slowdown and problems are more the result of United's failure to hire enough pilots.

Travelers can almost bet on more hassles.

``Every time I go to check the board, the time gets later and later,'' said Paul Sson, who was delayed more than three hours Monday as he waited at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago for a connecting flight to Syracuse, N.Y.

Debra Spinney has been trying to get from O'Hare to Lexington, Ky., since Friday but saw her flight canceled three straight days. She said she won't fly United again.

``I just want to get home and get back to work,'' Spinney said as she stood in a ticket line Monday.

Analysts said United and the rest of the airline industry this summer are facing record highs for the percentage of seats occupied.

``I think that both the pilots and the company probably bear some responsibility, and the timing could not be worse,'' said Ron Kuhlmann of Roberts, Roach & Associates in Hayward, Calif.

The Federal Aviation Administration said delays at O'Hare, a United hub, increased 23 percent last month compared with July 1999, and delays nationwide were up 16.5 percent in June from the same month last year.

United pilot Herb Hunter, a spokesman for the pilots' union, said some pilots have refused to work overtime but there is no organized effort by the union.

``If we settled this contract today we're still short of pilots,'' he said. ``They didn't hire enough people, and we told them over a year ago that we're going to be short this summer.''

United spokesman Joe Hopkins said the airline is in the process of hiring 1,300 new pilots. Earlier this year, the airline reduced its overall schedule by 2 percent to deal with the overtime issue.

Now more pilots are calling in sick, Hopkins said.

``That has hurt us, and we've obviously had weather problems,'' he said. ``We're well aware of our service levels and that there is frustration with our customers.''

Further souring relations is United's proposed $11.6 billion merger with US Airways. Union leaders oppose the deal, largely out of concern that United's 10,500 pilots will lose seniority to US Airways' 6,000 pilots.

The two sides are negotiating salary, benefits and work rules with the help of federal mediators and hope to have a contract agreement by Labor Day. A strike probably isn't imminent, but the union has activated its strike preparation committee just in case.

``It's been a difficult challenge all summer long, but we will get through it,'' Hopkins said. ``We'll get a new contract and things will return to normal.''