US Airways Set to Battle Holiday Rush

Charlotte airport officials are bracing for the biggest holiday crowds ever this year. About 90 percent of the city's travelers will fly US Airways, an airline that last holiday season delayed or stranded 560,000 passengers.

US Airways also is the busiest carrier at Myrtle Beach International Airport.

But the airline's new chief executive officer, Doug Parker, says it's a changed airline this year, and that he's "very confident" US Airways will avoid a repeat performance.

In 2004, bags piled up at the airline's hubs.

Travelers fumed for days on the national news. The company's chief executive officer at the time called it an "operational meltdown."

This year, the company is no longer operating under bankruptcy protection.

Parker says the airline is "highly focused" on correcting the problems.

On the job for three months, Parker said the problems - which he said seem to stem from the airline's Philadelphia hub - might not be totally fixed.

But the airline has hired more workers and bought new baggage equipment to avoid another fiasco, he said.

"A repeat of that would be highly detrimental to the success we're having," Parker said.

US Airways plans to avoid last year's holiday travel problems by increasing staffing and buying new baggage equipment in Philadelphia.

The company also says it's far different than it was a year ago, when a different group of executives was consumed with fighting for the airline's existence. US Airways left bankruptcy protection and merged with America West Airlines in September, a move that gave it new leaders and a new headquarters in Arizona.

A Transportation Department report on last year's troubles placed blame on management, which it said failed to plan for staffing shortages.

Since then, the airline says it has changed dramatically. It's increased staffing in Philadelphia by 400 workers. It's spent $2 million on new baggage equipment. There are new managers in place.

This week is expected to be busy. About 35 million people are expected to fly U.S. airlines in the two weeks surrounding Christmas, about the same number as last year, according to the Air Transport Association, a trade group. Last year, in the seven days around Christmas, the company canceled 405 flights, affecting 46,000 passengers. More than half the flights that took off in that period were delayed, and the airline received more than 72,000 claims for misplaced bags.

Initially, US Airways blamed higher-than-expected levels of sick calls from flight attendants and baggage handlers, mostly in Philadelphia. The cancellations, delays and baggage problems spilled to other cities when the airline was unable to get planes and crews into the right places.

Mike Flores, leader of the union that represents US Airways' flight attendants in the Eastern U.S., says the blame for last year's problems seems to have shifted away from flight attendants, because he's heard nothing from management about the issue.

"They never mention the flight attendants in any of their recent talk about it," Flores said. Still, flight attendants have agreed to contract changes - such as flying more hours per month and receiving less sick pay - that should help alleviate any staffing shortages, he said.

Some airline employees say Philadelphia's performance has improved but that it still operates less efficiently than it should.

In October, the last month for which there are federal data, US Airways ranked eighth out of 11 major airlines in on-time arrivals and had the worst record for reports of mishandled baggage.

US Airways spokesman Philip Gee said disruptions are always a part of winter travel because of the weather but that the airline is improving.

"Last year, US Airways was in survival mode," he said. "This year, the tide is changing."

This year, the tide is changing.'

Philip Gee | US Airways spokesman

US Airways, looking back

US Airways says it has changed dramatically in the past year and thinks it will avoid last holiday season's problems: Last year's problem | Staffing problems with baggage workers in Philadelphia, leading to 76,000 claims for missing bags. Response | Increase staffing in Philadelphia by 35 percent, or 400 workers, and spend $2 million on equipment such as 30 baggage carts and 35 baggage loaders.

Last year's problem | Shortage of flight attendants, leading to cancelled flights. Response | Changes in flight attendant labor contracts that require more flying and give workers less incentive to call in sick.

Last year's problem | Customer-service calls overwhelm workers, leading to 43 percent of holiday calls going unanswered. Response | This summer, the airline outsourced customer-service calls to the Philippines and Mexico, resulting in faster answering times.

US Airways flies nonstop between Myrtle Beach and Charlotte, N.C.

US Airways passenger enplanements at Myrtle Beach International Airport:

November | 18,138

Cumulative totals, January-November | 220,426

Last year | 211,579

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