- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

The holiday travel weekend for thousands of airline passengers across the country meant long delays, canceled flights without explanation and lost baggage as two airlines worked to fix computer problems and staffing shortages.

US Airways yesterday blamed a labor shortage and bad weather for hundreds of canceled flights and lost baggage, while Comair said its computer scheduling system crashed and forced cancellation of its 1,100 flights Saturday.

“The weather challenges on Thursday caused by heavy snow in the Midwest put us in a hole that we could not crawl out of on Friday or Saturday because of severe staffing shortages,” US Airways Chief Executive Officer Bruce Lakefield said in a taped message to airline employees.

“So, we canceled hundreds of flights, delayed thousands of bags, and irritated our passengers. We are trying to get the system back to normal or near-normal operations,” he said.

Unclaimed luggage piled up at airports across the country, including hundreds of bags yesterday at Richmond International Airport in Virginia and at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Some passengers in the region said they’ve been trying for days to get their luggage, including bags loaded with Christmas gifts.

“I haven’t had luggage for four days,” said Jeremy Kessler, 41, of Boston, whose baggage was lost at Reagan National Airport while he was traveling from Boston to visit his family in Louisville, Ky.

Computer problems forced Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines based in Cincinnati, to cancel all of its 1,100 flights Saturday. It resumed about 15 percent of those flights yesterday.

The problems for Comair began when the airline’s system that manages flight assignments crashed Friday owing to a flood of cancellations and delays caused by a severe winter storm in the Midwest.

Comair plans to resume full operations by New Year’s Day, but it is shooting for as early as Wednesday, Comair spokesman Nick Miller said.

“Obviously, we’re working to get as much of the schedule back up and running,” he said.

At US Airways, Mr. Lakefield said, the bankrupt airline’s flight attendants called in sick at a rate three times higher than usual.

“Most of our employees and many of our customers were let down by those who chose to abuse their sick leave when we needed them most,” he said. “We see no signs of an orchestrated sickout, but the impact was nevertheless just as severe.”

Mr. Lakefield’s statement angered union leaders who yesterday said the struggling carrier should have been prepared for a holiday staffing shortage.

“There was no organized sickout,” said Teddy Xidas, incoming president of the US Airways flight attendants union.

“Every year, every airline has a staffing problem on the holidays,” she said. “The company was ill-prepared. They can’t take themselves out of the equation. The company just jumped on the bandwagon and blamed labor.

“There is no way that the flight attendants union is trying to kill this company,” Ms. Xidas said.

Officials at the Federal Aviation Administration spoke with US Airways and Comair to help the airlines return to normal operations, spokesman Greg Martin said.

“We’ve been talking to them to see if there are things we can do as they try to return their operations to normal,” he said.

US Airways said it was running flights of airplanes filled only with baggage to reconnect lost luggage with passengers.

Mr. Kessler, the passenger trying to retrieve luggage at Reagan National, said he tried to get answers while standing in line at one US Airways gate, but “felt like I was squeezed in a New York City subway.”

“Nobody can tell me what’s going on,” he said. “They just keep passing you around.”

Not all customers at Reagan National were upset, however.

Richard Swann, 64, visiting family in the District, said his bags were lost after he arrived from his home in Orlando, Fla.

“These things just happen every once in a while,” Mr. Swann said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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