CHICAGO - Flight cancellations and delays are becoming routine for United Airlines this summer, a result of stormy weather and stormier relations between the world's largest airline and its pilots.
United says its pilots are refusing to work overtime since their contract expired in April and have increasingly been calling in sick. But the pilots say there is no organized work slowdown and problems are more the result of United's failure to hire enough pilots.
Wedged in the middle are travelers, who can almost bank on spending more time sitting around airports or on runways.
''I think that both the pilots and the company probably bear some responsibility, and the timing could not be worse,'' said Ron Kuhlmann of Roberts, Roach & Associates, an aviation consulting firm in Hayward, Calif.
He said the airline industry this summer is facing record highs for the percentage of seats occupied.
''We're operating in an environment where every day is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving,'' Kuhlmann said, referring to the traditional busiest travel day of the year. ''It's a combination of all sorts of really unfortunate things, and I don't think it's going to be fixed easily.''
United canceled 165 flights Monday following a weekend marked by hundreds of cancellations. United had the worst on-time arrival rate of major carriers in May, the latest month for which such figures are available.
''Every time I go to check the board, the time gets later and later,'' said Paul Sson, who was delayed more than three hours Monday as he waited at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago for a connecting flight to Syracuse, N.Y.
Debra Spinney has been trying to get from O'Hare to Lexington, Ky., since Friday but saw her flight canceled three straight days. She said she won't fly United again.
''I just want to get home and get back to work,'' Spinney said as she stood in a ticket line Monday.
The Federal Aviation Administration reports that delays out of O'Hare airport in Chicago, a United hub, increased 23 percent last month compared to July 1999, and delays nationwide were up 16.5 percent in June from the same month last year.
United pilot Herb Hunter, a spokesman for the pilots' union, said he has sensed increased consumer disgust. Hunter was delayed heading toward Chicago on Saturday and walked back to the cabin to show passengers weather maps so they understood the wait had nothing to do with labor problems.
''It's unfortunate that some people in management have been saying it's the labor dispute, and that is just flat not true,'' Hunter said.
Hunter admitted some United pilots have refused to work overtime but said there's no organized effort by the union.
''If we settled this contract today we're still short of pilots,'' he said. ''They didn't hire enough people, and we told them over a year ago that we're going to be short this summer.''
United spokesman Joe Hopkins said the airline is in the process of hiring 1,300 new pilots through the end of the year. Earlier this year, the airline reduced its overall schedule by 2 percent to deal with the overtime issue. Now more pilots are calling in sick, Hopkins said.
''That has hurt us, and we've obviously had weather problems,'' he said. ''We're well aware of our service levels and that there is frustration with our customers.''
United's pilots, machinists and many of its white-collar employees own a combined 55 percent of the company.
Further souring relations is United's proposed $11.6 billion merger with US Airways. Union leaders oppose the deal, largely out of concern that United's 10,500 pilots will lose seniority when they are merged with US Airways' 6,000.
The two sides are negotiating salary, benefits and work rules with the help of federal mediators and hope to have a contract agreement hammered out by Labor Day. A strike probably isn't imminent, but the union has activated its strike preparation committee just in case.
''It's been a difficult challenge all summer long, but we will get through it,'' Hopkins said. ''We'll get a new contract and things will return to normal.''
On the Net:
Air Line Pilots Association: http://www.alpa.org