Airlines Have a Long, Hot Summer Ahead

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.

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.

Regional carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which feeds passengers to Delta's jet flights, had the industry's worst on-time performance in 2006: An average of only 66% of flights arrived within 15 minutes of schedule all year long. In an effort to improve service, Delta is taking over ASA's bag handling June 1. Industrywide, about 75% of flights last year were on time.

More passengers also face rides on regionals' small jets and turboprops. Many small and midsize cities today are served only by regional airlines as financially strapped major airlines have moved big jets to longer, more profitable routes. Next month, airplanes with 75 or fewer seats will make 48% of the scheduled-airline departures in the continental USA, up from 41% in June 2000, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Back Aviation Solutions.

Clearing space for planes

Travelers may get a little help this summer from improvements at key airports. At Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the nation's busiest, an end-around taxiway opened last month that makes it possible for planes to get from the airfield to gates without crossing an active runway, eliminating 200 runway crossings a day.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines says that shaves a minute off the time it once took every jet crossing the runway to reach a gate.

"That's a huge" difference that can translate into better on-time performance, says Delta operations chief Joe Kolshak.

At New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, where Delta has sharply increased trans-Atlantic flights, that airline is hiring about 500 people to handle bags. That's important because this will be the first full summer for the Transportation Security Administration's liquids restrictions for carry-on bags. Now, passengers can take only 3 ounces of any one liquid in carry-on luggage, but there are no restrictions on liquids in checked bags.

As a result, the volume of checked luggage at virtually every airline has jumped at least 20%, straining baggage operations, since TSA began the restrictions last August after a terror scare in London.

JFK-based JetBlue Airways, which ended 2006 with one of the industry's highest rates of flight delays, has tweaked its schedule to improve on-time performance. Rob Maruster, senior vice president of operational planning, says JetBlue has lengthened its flying day and added time between flights to make the schedule more reliable. JetBlue also added more spare aircraft to reduce delays when planes break down.

Meanwhile, Bonanno says US Airways is out to prove the Philadelphia airport isn't synonymous with lousy bag handling. Since December, the airline has added about 500 workers at Philadelphia, as well as new luggage carts to replace old ones that regularly broke down.

"I've heard stories that people could order a pizza, eat it and then their bags would come up," Bonanno says. "When something breaks, we fix it now."


Contributing: Barbara Hansen