Airlines Have a Long, Hot Summer Ahead

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

Herb Hunter, a Boeing 747 captain and a spokesman for United's Air Line Pilots Association, says there's a shortage of 747 pilots at United's Washington Dulles hub, for example, so pilots must be imported from other cities to fly United international flights on 747s from Dulles. There also are fewer gate agents than before United's bankruptcy reorganization, one agent for each boarding gate instead of two. At smaller airports, one agent may cover a few gates.

"We're operating cut to the bone," Hunter says. "That works fine only so long as everything is going smoothly."

Pilot unions at US Airways, Northwest and United also say too many of their members, working longer hours since Chapter 11, suffer chronic fatigue, a safety risk.

"We're going to see more pilots saying, 'No, I'm too fatigued to fly this airplane,'" says ALPA national President John Prater.

While employees are still working longer hours for lower pay as a result of bankruptcy restructurings, that's not the case for airline executives. Disclosures of multimillion-dollar executive bonuses and stock payouts at American, United and Northwest outraged other employees. This month, for example, Northwest said CEO Douglas Steenland could get stock and stock options worth $27 million over the next four years under its reorganization plan. The company says incentives are key to executive performance and retention.

The protests, staff cuts and prospects for delays worry some passengers.

"I'm very concerned about long delays in a crowded and cramped plane," says Tim Collins, a teacher on a scholarship in Taiwan who will fly home to Chicago for vacation in July. "I'm also worried about getting stuck somewhere, then having to deal with employees who have bad attitudes because management gave itself huge bonuses."

Airlines, meanwhile, are praying this spring's severe weather won't continue into the summer. Powerful thunderstorms in Texas on April 24, for example, forced American Airlines to divert 129 flights bound for Dallas/Fort Worth to other airports for safety. That's nearly as many as it diverted on 9/11, when airlines grounded their entire fleets after the terrorist attacks.

On April 24, after hovering in a holding pattern over DFW Airport, American Flight 556, a Boeing 757, ran low on fuel and diverted to Midland, Texas, a small airport not equipped for large commercial jets. There it sat, full of passengers, for nearly eight hours, unable to return to Dallas and unable to unload passengers for lack of a tall jet stairway.

The incident echoed the Valentine's Day crisis at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, when an ice storm trapped hundreds of JetBlue Airways passengers for hours on planes, which were unable to take off or return to gates.

The Midland incident prompted American to recommend pilots divert, if they can, to airports equipped to accommodate their planes so passengers can get off.

To help blunt the impact of bad storms, the Federal Aviation Administration, which directs flights on the ground and in the air, has gone national with a program rolled out last summer in the congested patch of airspace bordered by Chicago, Boston and New York.

New computer software can single out flights planning to go through the air space where a storm is raging. Until now, a storm on one side of an airport would force air traffic controllers to order all flights bound for that airport not to take off, called a ground hold.

The new program requires ground holds only for flights actually crossing a storm's path. Flights scheduled to approach that airport from another direction will not be delayed by controllers.

Despite high-profile delays like the ones on American and JetBlue, the passengers most vulnerable this summer to flight delays, canceled flights and lost bags will be those booked on regional airlines flying under major carriers' brands.

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