Hundreds stuck at O'Hare

August 7, 2000

BY SUSAN DODGE STAFF REPORTER

A labor dispute between United Airlines and its pilots, topped off by a string of storms Sunday evening, created chaos at O'Hare Airport.

United canceled 80 flights and most other airlines delayed theirs, stranding hundreds of passengers.

The Smuckers of Goshen, Ind., were among them. Their plan was extreme: Go by minivan to New Hampshire.

"We can't drive," daughter Julia Smucker, 17, said with a scowl.

"It's the quickest way to get there because they can't even guarantee us a flight out of here [Monday]," said Julia's dad, Bob Smucker.

They may actually reach their destination faster than United passengers searching for alternative flights out of Chicago.

United canceled more than 200 flights over the weekend because of a pilot shortage. The airline said pilots refusing to work overtime caused many canceled flights. A spokeswoman for the pilots union did not return repeated phone calls from the Sun-Times on Sunday.

The canceled flights, together with a thunderstorm that left many airlines' flights delayed by as much as two hours, meant many passengers hunkered down to spend the night at O'Hare. The city's aviation department planned to set up cots for stranded passengers, said Monique Bond, aviation department spokeswoman.

The repercussions from the canceled flights are likely to be felt by passengers at O'Hare and at airports around the country again today as they try to get onto alternate flights on United and other carriers.

Some passengers Sunday were being turned away not only at United, but at other airlines that already had overbooked flights. Some people were taking their chances, hoping to squeeze onto a flight as standby passengers.

"The ones that are really going to suffer are the patients who I'm supposed to be operating on at 7:30 [Monday] morning," said Dr. Paul Sasaura, 29, whose United flight to Sacramento was canceled. "I doubt if I'm going to be there for surgery."

"Son of a gun," Sasaura said as he and a colleague, Dr. Alan Kawaguchi, 34, spotted the dreaded word "CANCELED" after their flight on the departures board.

The doctors had attended an orthopedic surgery conference in Chicago. They waited in line at the United ticket counter for more than an hour to hear they had to try to get on a 7:15 p.m. flight as standby passengers.

"I'm majorly pissed," Sasaura said.

In the past, the pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, has denied there is an organized effort to refuse overtime work.

Many of United's pilots had already worked all their allotted weekly hours trying to make up for flights canceled Thursday and Friday because of bad weather across the country, said Chris Brathwaite, United spokesman. United and the pilots union are negotiating a contract with a federal mediator and hope to have a new agreement in place by early September. The pilots have worked without a contract since April.

"We don't know if we're going to have crew shortages in the future," Brathwaite said. "We've been meeting with them [the pilots union] four or five times a week, and we're making progress."

Passengers such as the Smuckers, who opted to forget flying altogether, were getting full refunds from United for their tickets.

"I figured it was the least they could do," Bob Smucker said.

But missing their flight meant the family would spend four days out of their seven-day vacation in the car, driving.

Many passengers said canceled flights ruined business plans. Two bomb technicians who work for the DuPage County Sheriff's Department said they probably would have to forgo a one-week training class because of their canceled flight to Phoenix on Sunday.

"I would think if they were going to cancel flights they could be some out of the routes like Terre Haute or something, not the only flight to Phoenix," said Rick Morgan, a bomb technician from Warrenville.

For Amy and Brian Meredith of Seattle, a canceled flight meant another night apart from their 5-month-old daughter, Mackenzie, and their son, Trent, 5. Amy's mother was watching the kids while the couple was here for a comic book convention.

"I would have appreciated a little pre-warning first that this might happen," Amy Meredith said. "We didn't know about it until we got to the airport."

Contributing: Sun-Times wires.