washingtonpost.com  > Business > Industries > Transportation > Airlines

US Airways Appeals To Workers For Help

Troubled Airline Seeks Volunteer Labor for New Year's Weekend

By Caroline E. Mayer and Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page E01

Trying to avert another round of flight disruptions, US Airways yesterday sought volunteers from its nonunion workforce to work without pay at its troubled Philadelphia operations over the New Year's weekend.

The airline canceled nearly 400 flights last week, leaving thousands of passengers stranded or separated from their luggage, after an unusually high number of flight attendants and baggage handlers based at the Philadelphia airport called in sick.

Unclaimed luggage collects in front of a US Airways counter in Philadelphia on Saturday. (Jacqueline Larma -- AP)

_____Recent Headlines_____
US Airways Appeals to Workers
Airlines' Disruptions Draw Probe
For Travelers, Bagfuls of Sorrows (The Washington Post, Dec 27, 2004)

Yesterday, US Airways said its flight operations were back to normal, although the carrier was still trying to clear out the backlog of misplaced luggage -- at one point it totaled more than 10,000 pieces -- and deliver them to their owners.

Additional workers and executives had already been dispatched to Philadelphia earlier this week to help restore service, but yesterday the airline sought even more employees to work for free between Dec. 30 and Jan. 3.

"This is a volunteer program," the airline said in an e-mail to management and office staff. "You will not be paid if this is on your day(s) off. It promises to be a rewarding opportunity to learn more about the operation of our airline and come face to face with our customers."

Depending on their background, the employees will be assigned to meet and greet passengers at the ticket counter, security line, curbside or baggage claim, as well as provide assistance on the ramp and in the baggage sorting area, the memo said.

The memo came the same day the airline told all employees, including union workers, that it would conduct "an enhanced review of each person's attendance record during the holiday period" from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3 and consider "disciplinary action and/or loss of pay" if it is determined that any sick leave was unmerited.

US Airways was one of two airlines that suffered a major service interruption last weekend. Comair, a regional air carrier owned by Delta Air Lines Inc., canceled all of its flights on Saturday, after a major computer malfunction, which the company blamed on bad weather. Comair's operations still had not returned to normal yesterday; about 75 percent of the flights were back in the air, but the airline said it expected to be operating at full service today.

Kenneth M. Mead, the Department of Transportation's inspector general, has launched an investigation into whether the two airlines adequately prepared for the holiday travel period and whether they responded appropriately to consumers once flights were canceled and bags misplaced.

With airline traffic and delays increasing, the inspector general said the expedited inquiry will be the first step of a major audit of the entire airline industry's performance. The investigation will assess the carriers' treatment of their customers, the inspector general's office said Monday.

Mead said he will be looking at how well the companies are living up to customer-service commitments to deliver bags on time, provide adequate and timely information to customers about flight delays and cancellations, and respond to customer complaints within 60 days.

The inspector general's findings could be critical for the thousands of passengers who were stranded in airports last weekend and have not received restitution from Comair or US Airways for canceled flights or misplaced luggage, consumer advocates said. If the inspector general determines the disruption was due to weather, the airlines may not have to compensate passengers, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.

"The line of demarcation has been if the problem was not in the airlines' control, they tend not to take responsibility for disruption of passengers," Stempler said. But if the airlines are to blame, then passengers should receive some sort of payment for their troubles, he said.

However, just how much is unclear. No federal compensation requirements exist, except in the case of passengers bumped from overbooked flights, so each airline would determine any restitution. Yesterday, both US Airways and Comair said they were dealing with customers case by case. US Airways said that in many cases it had already paid some passengers $50 for the first night they were without their baggage and $25 for the second night. Both airlines said they tried to provide hotel and food vouchers to customers when needed.

But further compensation, such as free tickets or refunds, remains "a gray area," Stempler said. "It depends on what happened. If you were reaccommodated and got to a destination late, perhaps not," he said.

US Airways said its Philadelphia problems stemmed from an unusually high number of sick calls from flight attendants and baggage handlers -- three times the normal rate. Yesterday, Perry L. Hayes, president of the US Airways flight attendants union, posted a memo on the group's Web site, criticizing those who called in sick. "AFA in no way supports any member who calls in sick unless that person is actually sick," Hayes's memo said. "Sadly, the employees who took this action may ultimately cause the failure of the airline."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company