- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

Jim Durnil says he won’t fly US Airways again if he can avoid it, even after a flight that started yesterday in Mobile, Ala., and landed him close to on time in Washington.

“I doubt if I’ll fly them again. I’ll even pay more not to,” said the Alexandria resident, who was bothered by an apparent lack of urgency among airline staff and a steady stream of news about lost luggage, delayed flights and unhappy workers at the bankrupt company.

“I think they have an employee problem,” Mr. Durnil said while waiting for his bags at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

US Airways yesterday was recovering from what its chief executive called an “operational meltdown” caused by bad weather, a high number of workers calling in sick and a heavy holiday travel schedule. The carrier canceled 390 flights from Friday through Sunday, alienating customers and potentially causing much-needed business to turn elsewhere.

US Airways’ troubles, blamed on weather and workers calling in sick, and nationwide cancellations by Comair, a Delta Air Lines subsidiary that reported a major computer failure, spurred the Bush administration yesterday to call for an investigation into travel disruptions.

“It is important that the [Transportation] Department and the traveling public understand what happened, why it happened, and whether the carriers properly planned for the holiday travel period and responded appropriately to consumer needs in the aftermath,” Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a memo to the agency’s inspector general.

US Airways said staffing returned to normal levels yesterday and that it had made an extra effort to accommodate stranded travelers. But the company acknowledged that “these efforts are no substitute for our usually good record of delivering passengers and their bags to their destinations in a timely way,” and it apologized to customers.

But the damage may extend beyond agitated travelers.

“I think it is going to create a problem for US Airways, not only the passengers who experienced it, but the national coverage it received, the pictures of piled-up baggage all over the place. It certainly doesn’t give passengers confidence in the future,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington advocacy group.

“At this time, US Airways needs as many passengers and as much revenue as it can get,” he said.

The Arlington-based airline in September filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time in two years, and is trying to win $1.08 billion in concessions from employees as it struggles to stay afloat. The company struck a new pay-cutting contract with reservations and gate agents last week and is working on deals with flight attendants and machinists.

US Airways Chief Executive Officer Bruce Lakefield said customers flying during the Christmas season were let down by workers “who to chose to abuse their sick leave when we needed them most.”

The union representing US Airways workers said there was no sickout and that the airline was poorly prepared for the holiday rush.

“None of this was authorized or anything, but … morale was down” and the airline offered few incentives to get workers to show up, said Mark Gentile, vice president of a union local representing US Airways flight attendants.

“I hate to see the customers inconvenienced the way they are through this. There are ramifications from incidents like this,” Mr. Gentile said.

Not everyone was angry at US Airways.

Joe and Nancy Greaney of Darnestown switched their Boston-bound flight to US Airways after Comair canceled their flight.

“Our bags are checked in. We’re guardedly optimistic,” Mr. Greaney said yesterday.

Marcus Wilson said he had no problems at all when he flew US Airways from his hometown, Dallas, to Washington yesterday.

“Oh yes, I’d fly them again,” Mr. Wilson said.

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

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