Us airways' problems during the holidays with mishandled baggage are prompting travel agents and customers to book trips with other airlines. Travel agents said they're concerned...

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NEW YORK — US Airways’ problems during the holidays with mishandled baggage are prompting travel agents and customers to book trips with other airlines.

Travel agents said they’re concerned that operations disruptions or even liquidation will lead to more canceled trips as the bankrupt airline continues contract negotiations with the baggage-handlers union and faces $260 million in airplane payments in the next two months.

“Their future rests in the hands of thousands of travel agents,” said William Rochelle, an airline-bankruptcy expert with Fulbright & Jaworski.

Rochelle and other travel experts said the trouble during the holiday weekend prompted a greater degree of concern among customers than the bankruptcy filings of the past few years. US Airways continues to operate under Chapter 11 protection.

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“I think that what’s going on now is very dangerous for US Airways,” said Standard & Poor’s analyst Jim Corridore, who does not own airline shares. “I frankly have been surprised that they’ve been able to survive this long.”

The airline mishandled thousands of suitcases in Philadelphia and canceled hundreds of flights during the holiday weekend. Company officials have said bad weather and the higher-than-usual number of employees calling in sick caused the trouble. Union officials said poor management was to blame, and the sick calls weren’t part of a concerted job action. Still, the sick calls came despite US Airways’ offer of incentives to employees who worked all of their scheduled shifts during the holidays.

US Airways officials weren’t immediately available to comment yesterday, but the airline has said employees and managers volunteered to sort out baggage and help customers during the holidays.

Travel agents said they’re cautioning customers not to buy US Airways tickets for extremely time-sensitive travel, such as a relative’s wedding or graduation. And some travel agents said customers are instructing agents not to book US Airways.

“Up here in Philadelphia, the people I talk to, the agents are being very conservative. Where an alternative exists, they’re recommending it, even if it may be more inconvenient,” said Kevin Mitchell, founder of the Business Travel Coalition advocacy group.

Further, Mitchell said, loyalty among people in Philadelphia, where US Airways has long operated a hub, is waning. “Normally you’d say, ‘These people will forget this once they get to St. Thomas,’ but I’ve never heard the level of frustration and resignation.”

Kathryn Sudeikis, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, said she recognizes that booking away from US Airways would hurt the airline, and in turn limit the choices passengers have.

“We’re really anxious that all the carriers will be healthy,” she said. “We’re not booking away [from US Airways], but we’re being prudent about the kind of trip people are taking.”

Meanwhile, US Airways managers continue to negotiate with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, which represents baggage handlers and other workers. US Airways has signed cheaper contracts with nearly every work group except the machinists.

Union officials said Monday they don’t anticipate reaching a deal before tomorrow, when the bankruptcy judge could allow the airline to abrogate the contract.