The Transportation Department launched a formal investigation yesterday into the travel disruptions at US Airways and Comair last weekend that left thousands of passengers stranded...

Share story

WASHINGTON — The Transportation Department launched a formal investigation yesterday into the travel disruptions at US Airways and Comair last weekend that left thousands of passengers stranded or separated from their luggage.

The probe was requested by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who noted that US Airways and Comair were the only major carriers to report weather-related difficulties over the weekend.

“It is important that the department and the traveling public understand what happened, why it happened, and whether the carriers properly planned for the holiday travel period and responded appropriately to consumer needs in the aftermath,” Mineta wrote to the department’s inspector general, Kenneth Mead.

US Airways said a combination of bad weather and an unusually high number of employees calling in sick led to the cancellation of more than 300 flights on the weekend and more than 10,000 pieces of misplaced luggage. Yesterday, the airline said that its flights were back to normal but that many bags were still in transit.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Comair said bad weather contributed to a computer malfunction that forced it to cancel all 1,100 flights on Saturday. Yesterday, 60 percent of its flights were back in the air, and Comair said it expected to return to full service by tomorrow. The regional air carrier is owned by Delta Air Lines.

The investigation came as US Airways and some of its union leaders traded blame over the disruption.

Some airline officials have said they do not believe there was an orchestrated sickout, but Chief Executive Bruce Lakefield wrote in a memo to employees Sunday, “Most of our employees and many of our customers were let down by those who chose to abuse their sick leave when we needed them most.”

Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents the baggage handlers, said no sickout was organized by the union.

“We would never do anything, especially at this time of the year, that would precipitate this kind of situation,” he said.

The problem, he said, was inadequate staffing in Philadelphia, which is a major hub for the airline. He said between 100 and 180 baggage workers were laid off in recent weeks.

US Airways spokesman Christopher Chiames said that the airline had not laid off any employees in Philadelphia but that many jobs were lost through attrition.

Teddy Xidas, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants, said, “We are so short-staffed, if there is spit on the runway in Philadelphia, it causes a fiasco.”

The weekend disruption comes at a critical time for US Airways, which filed for bankruptcy protection in September, the second time in two years. Just before Christmas, the airline had won a 13 percent pay cut from its reservation and gate agents. It is seeking deals with flight attendants and machinists that it says it needs to drastically cut labor costs to survive beyond mid-January.

As US Airways passengers searched and waited angrily for their luggage in Philadelphia yesterday, many vowed never to fly the airline again.

“I will never fly US Air again, if I can find an alternative,” said Jay Baffa of Bryn Mawr, Pa., who found his bag torn last week and went back to complain yesterday. “I wish they would go bankrupt. They’d do us all a favor.”

Meanwhile, Comair’s computer troubles are prompting calls for more investments in backup systems and other technologies to prevent further groundings and damage to an already struggling industry.

“Obviously, the airlines have become way too dependent on computers,” said Terry Trippler, an airline industry expert in Minneapolis. “Imagine a computer glitch and all the Wal-Mart stores across the country shut down, (founder) Sam (Walton) would come out of his grave.”

Bruce Schneier, a computer-security expert in Mountain View, Calif., said the issue boils down to cost versus benefit.

Airlines could upgrade existing computers to handle more transactions, install sophisticated backup systems that come on when the primary system fails or buy high-performance software to keep critical systems running at all times, Schneier said.

“It’s certainly feasible, but it’s my guess it’s not economic,” Schneier said. “My guess is it is cheaper for the airline to absorb this loss, which doesn’t happen often, than to fix the problem.”

Comair spokesman Nick Miller said the Delta subsidiary already had planned to replace its scheduling system with one that can handle more transactions, but the new system was not set to come online until mid-January.

Compiled from reports by The Washington Post, The Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers.