Poor planning and poor labor relations at US Airways helped lead to delays and cancellations that inconvenienced a half-million holiday travelers in December, according to a federal investigation released Wednesday.
By contrast, the report by Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead determined that holiday delays and cancellations at Comair, a Delta Air Lines-owned regional carrier, were largely beyond the airline’s control.
The report was critical of the way US Airways Group Inc. handled the shortages of fleet service employees and flight attendants, particularly in Philadelphia. While managers knew of the impending staffing problem — and tried to mitigate the situation by paying other employees overtime — their “plans ultimately did not work,” the report concluded.
At one point, US Airways managers “began invoking mandatory overtime, but most employees either refused to work additional hours or went home sick,” said the report.
Still, contrary to claims by the Arlington, Va.-based carrier that flight attendants placed an unusually high number of sick calls, the government found the absentee rate was no higher than the year before.
“The real problem was the inadequate level of available flight attendants to cover for sick calls or other absences,” investigators concluded, blaming the problem on staffing reductions made to cut costs.
The report found more than 500,000 passengers were inconvenienced and 72,000 claims were filed for lost, stolen or damaged luggage.
Bad weather, computer problems
Comair stranded 269,000 holiday travelers and mishandled 11,000 bags, mostly in Cincinnati, the report said. Government investigators determined Comair’s poor performance probably couldn’t have been prevented because it was due to severe weather and computer problems.
A computer system used to schedule crews automatically shut down after reaching a monthly transaction limit neither the carrier nor the system manufacturer knew about. The monthly limit was reached because the weather prompted so many scheduling changes.
The investigation found seven other carriers have scheduling systems similar to Comair’s, but none are in danger of reaching the transaction limit because their service is more limited. They include Horizon Air, AeroMexico, British Airways, China Air, Royal Air Maroc, Tunis Air and Virgin Atlantic.
Comair spokesman Nick Miller said the company has addressed its computer problems with a temporary fix, regrets the inconvenience to customers and has taken steps to prevent a recurrence.
In a statement, US Airways said, “We trust that DOT officials recognize both our regret over the situation as well as the many initiatives we have taken to improve service to our customers.”
During the seven-day holiday period ending Dec. 28, more than 44 percent of all flights were delayed, compared with 23 percent a year earlier, and 6 percent of flights were canceled, more than four times higher than the year before. Bad weather was a major factor in the increase.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a statement that he was troubled by US Airways’ lack of data on several fronts, including the number of lost bags and how unaccompanied minors and passengers with disabilities were accommodated.
Mineta said the inspector general’s report would be distributed to all major U.S. airlines. He urged executives to evaluate their procedures in light of the report findings.