It’s an ill blizzard that blows no good. The blizzard that swept through the American heartland the days before and after Christmas forced carriers to cancel flights left and right, stranding holiday flyers in the traditional airport Christmas story (“we had to sleep in the floor for days and nights and never got to see Aunt Sally”). United, the major carrier at the heartland’s biggest airport, Chicago O’Hare, was forced to cancel several hundred flights, and by Christmas the airline had cancelled about 5% of its schedule. The airline blamed weather, including the snow, dense fog and clouds in the Windy City. Although it satisfied the ever-hungry news media such as local TV stations, this was definitely not good news for people travelling on United, but United’s chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association found nourishment for its long-running ‘blame the bosses’ feud with management about anything that happens at United. ALPA did not accept United’s explanation that planes and crews were out of place because of bad weather at its large hubs at Denver, Seattle and San Francisco, three cities with chronic bad weather. Instead, ALPA blamed the cancellation rate on ‘mismanagement’ similar to the ‘mismanagement’ that had left Northwest Airlines short of reserve crews in June and July. That case, it eventually became clear, was very much a case of less-than-optimal planning, and Northwest has since spent heavily to avoid future crew problems. Citing what they called an internal United memo about understaffing, the pilots said that weather delays had caused pilot hours to exceed monthly legal limits. This limited the number of back-up crews available and forcing United to cancel more flights than its competitors did. Other airlines serving the Chicago area such as Southwest and American had nowhere near the same cancellation rate, they said. “It is unconscionable that United would allow this gaping hole in the schedule during the most critical time of year for holiday travellers and then try to shift the blame to acts of God,” said Mark Bathurst, chairman of United’s ALPA chapter. The memo made it clear that the pilots were not to blame, says Bathurst, who also takes the opportunity to lambaste United executives for taking bonuses.
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