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Summer flying season turns ugly

While air travel was expected to have its share of hassles this summer, it has turned into a nightmare for many fliers. In recent weeks, travelers have been hit with long delays caused by everything from labor shortages and seasonal thunderstorms to computer snafus.

The number of flights canceled in the first 15 days of June was up a whopping 91 percent compared with the same period last year, and the number of flights that were excessively late — more than 45 minutes — jumped 61 percent, according to Overall, 70.7 percent of all U.S. flights arrived on time from June 1 through June 15, compared with 79 percent last year.

“I fly a lot, and I’ve never seen it this bad this systematically. It’s like the Italian train system,” said Nick Abbott, a vice president at networking concern Intelliden Corp. who was stuck in Philadelphia for two days after his flight on US Airways was delayed and then canceled last week.

Northwest Airlines Corp., battling with labor unrest, canceled 352 flights on Saturday and Sunday — more than the carrier canceled in the entire month of June last year, according to FlightStats. With airplanes booked full on a busy summer weekend, grounding 13 percent of flights left many travelers stranded, and problems continued Monday. By noon EDT, 100 flights had already been canceled.

Just a week ago, Northwest’s pilots union passed a “no confidence” resolution on management, citing shortages this summer of pilots as well as millions of dollars in executive compensation. Northwest said in a statement that the airline was experiencing crew shortages after storms earlier in the month increased duty time, and was relaxing ticket restrictions to accommodate passengers as quickly as possible.

The problem may get worse this weekend because crew shortages typically worsen at the end of the month. Some pilots called in to fly extra trips hit federal limits on monthly duty time and aren’t available for trips.

Thomas Adams was trying to get his family of four from Orange County, Calif., to Louisville, Ky., with a connection in Minneapolis last weekend when Northwest canceled their first flight. The family ended up driving about 90 miles to San Diego to catch flights on Delta Air Lines Inc. after a Northwest telephone operator told Adams that the flight crew was over its allowed flight hours and no other crew was available. A different operator told his wife that Northwest employees were calling in sick to protest a bonus for the chief executive after employees took pay cuts. “This is all very difficult on the traveler,” Adams said.

A couple weeks earlier, on Friday, June 8, a Federal Aviation Administration computer snafu, along with some thunderstorms in the Northeast, left planes parked on taxiways at Newark Liberty International Airport like cars for sale at an auto dealership. At airports in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago, only about half of all flights took off or arrived at a gate on time that day, according to FlightStats. (FlightStats, a unit of Conducive Technology Corp. in Portland, Ore., offers flight histories at its Web site, flagging chronically late flights for travelers, and provides alert services on delays.)

Last Wednesday, an employee at UAL Corp.’s United Airlines made a mistake that crippled a crucial computer system and its backup for two hours in the morning. Because airlines schedule planes so tightly, they can almost never recover from early problems on the same day. On June 20, only 30 percent of United’s flights arrived on time; about half of all flights were more than 45 minutes late, according to FlightStats.

Even when travelers get to their destination, it doesn’t always mean the woes are over. United lost National Public Radio host Scott Simon’s luggage on a flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas last week. After filling out paperwork in Las Vegas, Simon was given a phone number and e-mail address to contact the San Francisco baggage office — with the caution that San Francisco never answers the phone or responds to email.

More than 30 calls later, Simon, an elite-level frequent flier on United, has yet to reach a United baggage official in San Francisco, or learn anything about the fate of his baggage, which includes irreplaceable items after adopting his second child in China. Calls to the airline’s main toll-free line haven’t yielded any information, either. American Express Co. is also trying to track down information, a service for its platinum customers, but hasn’t gotten through to United, either.

Summer is always tough for airlines, with large crowds of travelers to handle while contending with summer storms — airplanes usually don’t fly through thunderstorms, so routes and airports can be shutdown by bad weather. But this year, with airlines packing planes fuller than ever, even small storms have cascaded into major disruptions for customers. With load factors approaching 90 percent or more on many days, finding available seats when customers miss connections or get stranded by cancellations has been difficult, and some travelers have been stranded for several days.

Carriers say they need to book planes full — and overbook many flights — in order to make profits when oil prices are so high and ticket prices relatively low. But this summer has tested whether airlines have pushed capacity too far.

Runways are often over-booked, too. Some airports, particularly in the crowded Northeast, have seen sharp increases in the number of flights, especially as airlines have substituted more-frequent flights with smaller jets in place of fewer large-jet trips. More congestion makes for longer delays when storms hit, so planes sit for hours waiting to take off.


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