United apologizes for record delays | AspenTimes.com

United apologizes for record delays

Ashley M. Heher
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

CHICAGO ” United Airlines says it faced the worst December weather in its 80-year history last month and said Thursday that snow and ice caused the carrier to have double the industry average number of delays.

But members of United’s pilots’ union blamed staffing shortages, not just storms around major hubs, for the woes ” a claim the carrier disputes.

Regardless of cause, the nation’s No. 2 U.S. airline is apologizing to frazzled passengers.

“December is typically a month that we anticipate weather conditions that make it more difficult to operate. We plan for that,” said United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy. “This was the worst December in history weather-wise for United.”

United was forced to cancel about 2,350 flights last month ” more than 4.9 percent of its systemwide departures, according to data from Portland, Ore.-based FlightStats. Meanwhile, less than half its flights were on time, and delays averaged 64 minutes, longer than any other major carrier.

In December 2006, more than two-thirds of United flights were on time and delays averaged 54 minutes.

Comparatively, American Airlines canceled about 3.3 percent of flights last month, Delta Air Lines grounded 2.1 percent and Northwest and Continental each canceled less than 2 percent, according to FlightStats. All four carriers had shorter delays, but many said they struggled with poor December weather.

“It was a tough winter weather month for all the industry,” said Julie King, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc.

Meteorologists said an unusually high number of storm systems doused portions of the country with rain and fog while pummeling other regions with snow and a thick coating of ice.

United officials said the airline was particularly vulnerable because of inclement weather and air traffic control delays at its hubs in Denver and Chicago, where two-thirds of the airline’s domestic flights begin or end.

More than 17 inches of snow ” twice the December average ” fell last month at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

But the Air Line Pilot’s Association said United was using foul weather as an excuse to mask mismanagement that led to many pilots maxing out on the number of hours they could fly.

“Obviously weather was the triggering factor, but the fact of the matter is that in December, the company played Russian roulette with the schedule and the passengers lost,” said Capt. Todd Daniels, a San Francisco-based United pilot who is a spokesman for the union.

For its part, the Chicago-based carrier said it had more pilots flying planes in December than it did the year before. And the airline said it wouldn’t have changed the way it handled flights last month, when it opted to fly crowded planes late into the night before the Christmas holiday, ensuring passengers ultimately reached their destinations despite lengthy delays.

Because of rules governing the time airline employees can work, that decision meant more cancelations on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and later in the month.

“We feel we made the right decision for our customers,” McCarthy said.

Shares of UAL Corp., United’s parent company, reached a 15-month low Thursday.

The stock fell 80 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $31.21 in afternoon trading before closing down 2.4 percent at $31.75.

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