- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

It's the dog days of summer for United Airlines and thousands of passengers stranded by recent delays and flight cancellations.

Complaints about airline problems have reached fever pitch as bad weather, pilot shortages, a strained air-traffic system and record loads of passengers have combined to ground thousands of travelers for hours and even days at United's hubs in Chicago and Denver.

The world's largest air carrier issued an apology for the problems. And it announced that it is canceling nearly 2,000 scheduled departures next month, on top of the 4,800 flights already canceled since May, in an attempt to better manage its overloaded flight system.

"We are anguished by the pain and suffering these operational difficulties are causing to our customer and our front line employees," United president Rono Dutta said in a statement Monday after a particularly difficult weekend of delays.

Mr. Dutta attributed the problems in part to contract negotiations with the airline's pilots, many of whom have been refusing to work overtime since their contract expired on April 1. Mr. Dutta said he hopes to reach agreement with the pilots on a new contract in the next month.

That's little consolation to Kathie Burr, a Los Angeles resident who was late last week for her brother's wedding in upstate New York because of missed connections and canceled flights at United's hub at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Miss Burr was one of thousands left stranded because of persistent thunderstorms on the East Coast that made flying in and out of airports in Washington and New York hazardous at the busiest times of day in late afternoon and evening.

"I paid full price for this ticket so I could get to the rehearsal dinner on time," said Miss Burr, who actually was fortunate compared to other United customers. The airline picked up the cost of her overnight hotel stay as she waited for another flight.

The airline says it will not pick up the tab for passengers delayed by weather, but it usually helps those like Miss Burr who miss connections through no fault of their own.

Marion and Owen Morrison, two travelers headed for Charlottesville, were not so lucky. They had to pay $150 for a hotel room and cab fares in Chicago because evening flights through Washington Dulles International Airport were canceled Aug. 2 due to bad weather.

"I'll never fly United again," vowed Mrs. Morrison.

Late-night cabdrivers and hotel operators in the Chicago area say their business is booming because of United's woes. Hundreds of other stranded passengers spend sleepless nights in the United terminal at the Chicago airport where business is bustling at the all-night concession stands.

The latest rash of passenger complaints poses a problem not only for United but for the airline industry, which has promised to adopt "voluntary service commitments" to bring down rising complaint levels. The increasing decibel has also prompted Congress to look into forcing improvements with legislation.

Ron Kuhlmann, analyst with Roberts, Roach & Associates in San Francisco, said United's troubles result from a confluence of problems, not the least of which are record numbers of passengers that have left few empty seats on planes this summer.

"It's like every day this summer has been the day before Thanksgiving," he said, attributing the record demand for airline seats to the robust economy, which has put lots of disposable income in consumers' pockets.

"All airlines are flying at maximum capacity and are stretching their limits" to accommodate the demand, he said, noting that when economic times were harder, fewer people flew across country to attend weddings.

The airlines by law are prohibited from forcing pilots to work overtime, and precious flight time gets eaten up by the weather-related delays, he said. "When you have the crew sitting on the ground in Chicago waiting for weather to clear in New York, obviously they're using up their duty time."

With thousands of connections made each day at airport hubs, one flight's problem causes another's cancellation or delay. "It sort of ricochets throughout the day," he said, in a pattern that has affected other airlines as well as United.

"United has had a run of extremely bad luck," but last year it was Northwest, he said. "It's an embarrassment of riches, because they're carrying more people than they can handle."

For the consumer, it's a lot like being stuck in a traffic jam for two hours because of an accident or repairs on the roadway, he said, although "the inconvenience is probably more gut wrenching."

Consumer watchdogs are not so charitable toward United.

"You've got to get your act together, United. This is out of control," said Terry Trippler, an airline expert at www.1travel.com, an on-line travel service.

"At one point, United was saying if they merged with US Airways, their customer service would get better," he said. "They're probably right, because customer service couldn't get worse."

United had the second worst record on consumer complaints from January to June, after America West airlines, he said. "I hope this alerts the regulators to stop this United-US Airways merger," Mr. Trippler said.

Northwest and other airlines have learned hard lessons from their brushes with angry travelers in past years, he said. Northwest now allows people to change their travel plans without penalty if the weather causes delays.

"United says, just come out to the airport and we'll cancel when you get on the plane," he said.

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