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United cancels many flights to relocate planes after storm

December 26, 2007|Julie Johnsson | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — United Airlines canceled hundreds of flights Tuesday for a second straight day as it scrambled to recover from a weekend storm that battered its hub at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

By Tuesday evening, United had canceled 310 flights, or 21% of the total scheduled globally for Christmas, according to FlightStats.com.

The carrier canceled 148 flights, 10% of its schedule, on Monday as it struggled to recover from the fourth straight weekend in which storms clogged O'Hare.

After a storm with wind gusts of 60 mph raked the Midwest on Sunday -- one of the busiest travel days of the year -- United flew late into the night to get holiday travelers to their destinations.

But doing so left its planes and pilots out of their originally intended positions when operations resumed Monday, United said.

The nation's No. 2 carrier took advantage of light travel on Christmas, when its planes would be nearly empty, to effectively reboot its operations, canceling flights so that it could get planes back into position for the heavier travel expected today, United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

"We did proactively cancel flights today in order to best accommodate customers and get them to their destinations," Urbanski said.

United's largest competitors in Chicago didn't have the same struggles to recover from Sunday's storm. American Airlines, which also has a major hub at O'Hare, had canceled 41 flights systemwide as of noon Tuesday. Southwest Airlines, which dominates travel at Midway Airport, canceled one flight.

Sources close to United said that the airline's lean staffing contributed to this week's cancellations, but that the disrupted operations weren't the result of any job action by the carrier's pilots.

United, like most major airlines, has trimmed its pilot corps in an effort to stay profitable at a time when fuel prices are soaring and the economy is sputtering. However, the leaner staffing leaves carriers vulnerable to crew shortages when foul weather pounds major operation centers.

The problem can reach critical levels when pilots grounded by storms reach their maximum number of duty hours allowed by federal regulators before the month's end. This forces airlines to scramble to find reserve pilots willing to take over flights.

Complicating matters for United, it had to find volunteers to fly its planes on Christmas Eve and Christmas, when many pilots were reluctant to go to work.

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