US Airways said yesterday that several hundred employees responded to its call to volunteer at its troubled Philadelphia operations this holiday weekend as the airline braces for another heavy travel period.
Starting today, a combination of union and nonunion workers -- executives, clerical workers, pilots and flight attendants -- will be on hand to meet and greet customers, trying to earn back some goodwill after the airline canceled nearly 400 flights and misplaced 10,000 pieces of luggage during the Christmas weekend. The response from employees came swiftly after the airline issued a memo Tuesday seeking volunteers. The employees will not be paid if they are working on their day off.
Stacy Tornatore of Denver rests on her luggage at the US Airways terminal in Philadelphia on Saturday.
(Jacqueline Larma -- AP)
The airline said yesterday it was still struggling to deliver bags to their rightful owners. A bulletin on the company's Web site said it hoped to have all luggage returned "by the end of the week." David Castelveter, a company spokesman, said it was impossible to say exactly when all bags would be returned.
The financially troubled airline, which is trying to emerge from its second bankruptcy in two years, attributed last weekend's disruption to an unusually high number of sick calls from flight attendants and baggage handlers in Philadelphia.
Airline officials have said that the sick calls were about three times the number on a usual day. But an industry expert who was familiar with US Airways' operations said yesterday that the number of sick calls from flight attendants was no higher this year than Christmas 2003. However, their absence was more costly to the airline's operations this year because staffing had been trimmed as a result of the carrier's financial woes.
Ellie Larson, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, said that the union's numbers show that about 10 more US Airways flight attendants called in sick this year than last year. "We didn't believe this was an unusual occurrence," Larson said. "And last year, US Airways didn't cancel any flights."
The industry expert, who insisted on anonymity, said that in past years, the airline had been able to fill any vacancies with a pool of standby employees. But as the airline has trimmed its operations -- flights as well as employees -- those workers were no longer "standing in the wings," the expert said. "The airline couldn't afford it."
This year, the expert added, the airline had counted on the remaining employees to recognize its financial vulnerability and refrain from calling in sick unless absolutely necessary.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents the baggage handlers, said it does not track employee absentee numbers. "That is management's responsibility," said Rick Sloan, a union spokesman. He said the backup of misplaced luggage was because the airline has "pared the baggage handlers to the bone."
In February, the union "advised US Airways management that its Philadelphia hub operation and facilities were in urgent need of attention," said Robert Roach Jr., IAM vice president of transportation, in a statement posted on the union's Web site Tuesday night. He said the union "offered to play a major positive role in transforming the Philadelphia hub into a safe, efficient operation. Management rebuffed the IAM's offer as 'worthless.' "
US Airways' Castelveter said the union's ideas "did not come close to meeting our cost target objectives, but we are in negotiations with the IAM to try to achieve these goals."