Airline delays rise - and some blame stressed workers

Amid storms, glitches, and industry cost-cutting, January was the worst month for delays in six years.

It's official. Americans are now flying the crowded, cranky skies.

Flight delays in January were the worst for that month since 1999, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And passenger complaints spiked dramatically, more than doubling since January a year ago and increasing 40 percent over December.

Weather is always the primary cause of delays, and there have been plenty of storms this winter. Add to that the US Airways Christmas baggage meltdown and Comair's computer failure, the combination of which left hundreds of thousands of fliers stranded at airports or without their luggage.

But aviation experts, pilots, and other airline employees see a deeper reason for both the increase in delays and passenger complaints: a demoralized and frustrated workforce that's being asked to do more even as it's getting paid less.

An analysis of the Department of Transportation data also indicates that a larger percentage of flight delays during December and January were caused by problems within the airlines' control, things such as maintenance and crew scheduling, than at any time since June of 2003. That's the first month that the DOT began tracking the distinct causes of delays.

"The legacy carriers' workforces are now so shell-shocked, angry, and demoralized that it's showing," says Kevin Mitchell of the Business Traveler's Coalition. "We're entering a new phase."

The airlines and unions are quick to praise their workers for rising to the challenge during these very difficult times in the aviation industry, as well as for carrying the brunt of the cost cutting. But unease is growing within the ranks. And passengers have noticed.

For instance, some of the so-called legacy (older) carriers now require gate agents to clean the planes as well as check people in. So some passengers have found themselves without a customer-service agent to talk to until just before the plane leaves. Pilots find themselves stuck at the gate because their crew of flight attendants has already worked as long as the FAA would allow them to. And sometimes there are only enough cargo loaders to load one plane, so if two planes need to be loaded or unloaded the entire system gets backed up.

"They've cut employees to such a degree that they don't have enough employees to do the job and serve the customers properly," says one pilot, who works for a legacy carrier.

The major airlines contend that's not the case at all. Jeff Green, a spokesman for United Airlines, says the major carriers have shrunk significantly since 9/11. United now has about 60,000 employees, down from a high of 110,000. But they're also flying only about 1,500 flights a day, that's down from 2,400 pre-9/11. So while there are far fewer employees, the airline also has far fewer flights.

He also notes that United has had its best on-time performance in the past two years and that internal gauges of customer satisfaction are up. "What our employees are going through is not having an effect on our customer service," says Mr. Green. "The data that we collect and the performance that the DOT is tracking on us have shown that."

Employees on the front line tell a different story. They contend that some of the legacy carriers have learned to "trick the system" to make it appear more flights are on time than really are. "They're just closing the doors and releasing the brake so they can report an on-time departure, when in reality they may still be loading cargo for 30 minutes and the passengers just sit in the plane while others end up missing their connection because the door is closed," says the pilot. "It's all about the numbers and the perception of service and not service itself. There are plenty of ways to trick the system to make it appear you're on time."

Aviation experts contend that if that's the case, the major airlines may find even more challenges ahead. As their fare structures and prices come closer to those of the successful low-cost carriers, customer service and satisfaction will become even more crucial in determining which airlines succeed.

"The morale and the way you're treated on the plane speaks a lot as to whether you'll fly that airline again," says Helane Becker, an airline analyst at the Benchmark Co. "It's not the be-all and end-all. It's not going to put an airline out of business. But it's not going to help it a lot either if they're already in trouble."

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