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updated 5/2/2007 7:20:27 PM ET 2007-05-02T23:20:27

U.S. airline passengers face a summer of cancellations and delays as a crisis of "chronic pilot fatigue" limits carriers' ability to handle disruption caused by bad weather, the head of the largest cockpit crew union has warned.

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John Prater, the new president of the Air Line Pilots' Association, said carriers had cut too many staff and stretched working rules to the limit over the past five years, with some flight crew working 12-16-hour days and bumping against federal duty-time standards.

"We have pilots that are far too tired to command aircraft," Mr. Prater told the Financial Times. "You can do this stuff for a while, but then you start to build up chronic fatigue."

Airline executives on Wednesday dismissed his remarks as a negotiating ploy ahead of contract talks at some carriers but insisted they complied with federal flying-time standards and had adequate staffing to cope with "normal" weather.

The Air Transport Association, the main industry trade group, declined to comment and said labor issues were the responsibility of individual airlines.

The prospect of worsening delays comes amid a consumer and political backlash after winter storms paralyzed operations at some airlines, stranding passengers for up to nine hours.

"The airlines have cut so much staffing they have lost the ability to handle bad-weather situations," said Mr. Prater, warning that carriers would run short of flight crew in the coming months.

"We face a very, very difficult summer of delays [and] you are going to see more outright cancellations."

Mr. Prater's remarks highlight a more militant stance by pilots, who gave him a narrow election victory over the moderate incumbent Duane Woerth in an election last October.

Mr. Prater credited his predecessor with "saving airlines" by agreeing to pay and benefit cuts and more flexible working practices as the industry reeled from the impact of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.

He said airlines' financial recovery now required management to "share the gains" by reopening contract talks ahead of the expiry of current deals at most of the large airlines over the next two years.

Mr. Prater declined to comment on negotiations at individual airlines, but the growing disquiet will see pilots from United Airlines picket Washington airports today in protest at their own treatment and what they view as excessive executive pay.

While cost-cutting and higher fares have helped most carriers return to profitability, executives across the industry have expressed concern in recent weeks about overcapacity and soft demand as the U.S. economy cools, limiting their ability to broker new deals without matching increases in productivity.

Mr. Prater said airlines could not expect flight crews to fly even longer hours and warned that the industry faced a recruitment crisis as pilots left airlines or opted not to return to duty from holidays. He said some airlines had also cut the entry requirements for new pilots joining from flight school to the federal minimum.

The prospect of worsening delays comes as Congress weighs a passenger "bill of rights", which would include a compensation scheme and the right to require delayed aircraft to return to the gate.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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