United drops 1,900 flights

August 9, 2000

BY ROBERT C. HERGUTH TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

United Airlines, already limping from weather and labor problems that caused another 200 flight cancellations nationwide Tuesday, has pulled 1,900 additional departures from its September schedule.

The aim is "to help improve our on-time performance and reliability," said United spokesman Matt Triaca. The airline has 2,400 flights each day.

The decision to yank the flights was made earlier this summer and revealed in past financial briefings. But it took on special meaning Tuesday in light of hundreds of cancellations and thousands of travelers stranded this past week.

At O'Hare Airport, 40 departures and 58 arrivals were canceled by late Tuesday afternoon, with more possible thanks to inclement weather.

Aside from weather, airline officials said, a factor in the cancellations has been a refusal by pilots to work overtime. In another statement on the lack of progress in contract talks, some also have been calling in sick.

"It's almost 50-50, between labor and weather," Triaca said.

Herb Hunter, a spokesman for the union representing United pilots, said the airline shouldn't be blaming pilots for problems. "It's unfortunate the company schedules future flights assuming people are going to fly overtime instead of having the airline adequately staffed," he said. The airline, he said, is only now hiring new people, and it should have heeded earlier warnings.

Aside from United's situation at O'Hare, it was a fairly "normal day" at O'Hare and Midway airports Tuesday, said Chicago aviation spokeswoman Monique Bond.

American Airlines had about 20 O'Hare cancellations, an official said.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said he's glad United was "realistic" and canceled the September flights now rather than wait until the last minute.

Mayor Daley said the Elk Grove Township-based airline should have "come clean" earlier and told passengers of labor problems. "It started in April. . . . I think they're going to have a real difficult time with their customers."

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, disclosed delays were up 23 percent at O'Hare in July compared with a year ago. They were down 69 percent at Midway.

Part of the problem is that the "system is bursting at the seams," said Stempler, so when trouble hits one carrier, there's nowhere to move travelers.

Meanwhile, the number of mishandled bags and airline service complaints shot up in June over the previous month and June of last year, according to new U.S. Department of Transportation figures.

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KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

The good news: As a passenger whose flight gets canceled or delayed, you have rights. The bad news: They are limited and difficult to assert.

Q. If weather is to blame for a cancellation, will the airline put me up in a hotel or pay for a meal?

A. Probably not. Carriers consider such problems beyond their control. Q. Will the carrier that canceled my flight help me get another one, even with a competitor?

A. Airlines are supposed to do that, but may steer you to their own first.

Q. If a canceled flight causes me to blow a big business deal, will the airlines cough up anything?

A. No. They consider themselves not liable for "consequential" expenses.

Remember, with so many problems, airlines make frequent rule exceptions.

Robert C. Herguth