Airlines Have a Long, Hot Summer Ahead

Big crowds, unhappy staffs 'cut to the bone' spell trouble.

PHILADELPHIA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT -- When the summer travel stampede starts here after Memorial Day, US Airways' Ross Bonanno says, his airline will be ready.

US Airways has invested millions in smoothing operations at this sprawling old hub airport, badly neglected during two bankruptcy reorganizations and the 2005 merger with America West. US Airways has had a series of widespread service lapses since the merger, and its Philadelphia operation was notorious in past years for baggage carousel waits of an hour or more.

"This summer, we're going to be in much better shape," says Bonanno, a vice president who oversees US Airways operations at 40 airports in the East.

New $2 million bag-tag reader equipment that routes bags correctly 95% of the time has replaced old equipment that accurately read tags just 65% of the time, speeding bags to planes.

With their finances improving, other U.S. airlines are also spending for the first time in years to brighten and staff up airports for summer, the year's busiest travel period. The government has tweaked the air-traffic control system to reduce disruptions from storms.

But those efforts won't guarantee a smooth summer. With at least 207 million people expected to fly U.S. carriers this summer, up from 203 million last summer, the nation's air-travel system will be near capacity. Restive labor unions, tight airline staffing, continued bad weather, a new twist in security rules or other developments could make summer 2007 one to remember -- not in a good way.

Airlines are pushing their fleets and employees hard, with shorter stays at the gate between flights. Overall, there are more domestic and international flights this summer than last, and despite higher fares, many flights will be sold out.

Already this year, severe weather and crowded airfields have repeatedly caught airports and airlines unprepared, trapping planeloads of passengers on taxiways for hours. Unhappy workers at several big carriers publicly complain they are understaffed after bankruptcy-era staff cuts.

Morale tracks pay cuts

Even as airlines were cutting workers' pay and benefits and lengthening their hours in the post-9/11 travel downturn, airline unions for the most part soldiered on to save their companies.

But a recent round of generous executive payouts, coupled with their own diminished paychecks, have put many airline workers in a foul mood. That heightens the chance for trip disruptions if workers feel less inclined to go the extra mile for their employers.

With planes routinely flying 80% or more full, "Any labor disruption is something the industry is really vulnerable to," says Denver-based airline consultant Michael Boyd.

Unions at four of the USA's biggest airlines -- American, United, Northwest and US Airways -- have been publicly venting at management, picketing and buying newspaper ads and billboards. A common thread among the protests is frustration with the deep pay cuts and heavier work schedules that unions accepted to save their companies after Sept. 11, 2001.

Pilots at United, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy 16 months ago, complain the airline has scheduled them this summer with little or no margin for the unexpected.

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