By Rogers Worthington
Tribune Staff Writer
August 8, 2000

Cancellations and delays continued Monday at O'Hare International Airport for its biggest airlines, with a United Airlines spokesman suggesting that some of the problem was due to an unusual number of pilots calling in sick.

"It's a sharp increase compared to what they usually are," said United spokesman Joseph Hopkins, who could not say how many pilots called in Monday.

The airline is in the midst of labor negotiations with the Airline Pilots Association.

United pilots and mechanics have been without a contract since April 15, when their employee stock ownership plan also came to a halt. Fifty-five percent of United stock is employee-owned.

A spokeswoman for the local union denied any labor action was involved in the cancellations.

"There is no organized effort by this union regarding slowdowns, sickouts, whatever you want to call it," said Kathy White.

Capt. Herbert Hunter, a spokesman for the pilots who said progress is being made in the negotiations, did not rule out that some pilots may be choosing on their own not to work overtime, "which is their right," he said.

United spokesman Matthew Triaca, however, said some of the pilots calling in sick were not being asked to fly overtime. To reduce the need for overtime, United has removed 3 percent of flights from its summer schedule and is hiring 1,300 pilots this year.

Still, despite good weather, about 50 United flights were canceled out of O'Hare on Monday, and 242 were canceled systemwide, Triaca said.

About 120 flights were canceled Sunday, when gale-force winds, rain and lightning thrashed the Chicago area. And Saturday, 150 flights were canceled, partially because of weather problems on the East Coast and partially because of pilots calling in sick, Triaca said.

American Airlines, the second-largest carrier at O'Hare, canceled 20 flights at the airport Monday because of residual weather-related problems, said company spokesman John Hotard.

Delays averaged 30 to 60 minutes throughout the morning, but were largely cleared up by the afternoon, said Monique Bond, the airport's spokeswoman. Sunday's delays ran up to two hours, she said.

United sought to ease the anticipated problems stemming from Sunday's weather by tripling the number of spare aircraft available to 33, allowing for a quick substitution if any airplane developed mechanical problems Monday, Hopkins said.

United also has increased the so-called block time of their flights to be more realistic about airport operations when publishing arrival and departure schedules. Block time, the period between a plane's pushback at one gate to its arrival at another, has been expanded.