Federal transportation officials said yesterday they would examine operations at Philadelphia International Airport, where thousands of US Airways travelers for a third consecutive...

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PHILADELPHIA — Federal transportation officials said yesterday they would examine operations at Philadelphia International Airport, where thousands of US Airways travelers for a third consecutive day missed flights and spent Christmas without their luggage.

The problems, including a pileup of an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 luggage items, were so severe that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta personally intervened.

“The situation that has developed in Philadelphia I think poses more questions than answers,” Department of Transportation spokesman Robert Johnson said. “Was this just bad weather or something more?”

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A spokeswoman for US Airways, which has filed for bankruptcy protection, said part of the problem was that a high number of baggage handlers and flight attendants had called in sick. Airline employees said workers frustrated over pay and benefit cuts had engaged in a job-related “sick-out.”

Spokesmen for the unions representing flight attendants and baggage handlers denied any organized job action.

Mineta was concerned, Johnson said, that “A, we get the passengers where they’re going, and B, that we figure out what went wrong so that it doesn’t happen again. … It’s an unfortunate situation that cannot be repeated.”

Travelers said they were awestruck by the chaotic situation.

“Even post-9/11 I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Rodney Gibson IV, 29, a graduate business student at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Gibson, who took a Northwest Airlines flight from Philadelphia to San Jose, Calif., on Friday, said lines seemed interminable.

“The line went out the doors,” he said. “It did the whole accordion deal, zigzagging the normal way, and then out the door and onto the sidewalks.”

Several of the airport’s terminals resembled barracks as entire families set themselves up for overnight stays. Airport workers handed out coffee, hot chocolate, water, snacks, pillows and blankets, said Mark Pesce, a spokesman for the city-owned airport.

US Airways canceled 65 flights Thursday, 176 Friday and 143 yesterday. Spokeswoman Amy Kudwa noted “a confluence of issues creating the backlog of luggage.” She listed Thursday’s severe weather elsewhere in the Northeast and in the Midwest, an unusually high number of flight-attendant sick calls and in Philadelphia, an unusually large number of baggage-handler sick calls.

Philadelphia is a US Airways hub, but the baggage backups extended to other East Coast airports.

To reunite travelers with their bags as quickly as possible, the airline flew jets containing nothing but luggage to its other major hub, in Charlotte, N.C., Kudwa said.

US Airways has said that in the absence of significant labor cuts and decreases in pension costs, it likely would begin liquidating in mid-January. The only union it has not reached agreement with on concessions is the International Association of Machinists, which represents baggage handlers and mechanics.

Other airlines also were experiencing weather-related delays in Philadelphia yesterday.

“Today should have been the slowest travel day of the year,” Philadelphia airport spokesman Mark Pesce said. “But because of the storms and the delays and cancellations of the last couple of days, today is an active day.”

Compiled from Knight Ridder Newspapers, The New York Times and The Associated Press.