March 20, 2007

US Airways Passengers Grounded and in the Dark

Washington photographer Heidi Fisher was ready to leave for Guatemala yesterday to celebrate the spring equinox amid the Mayan ruins at Tikal. But the last tremors of winter, and problems at US Airways, kept her in the far less transcendent setting of Reagan National Airport.

"This is insane," said Fisher, one of hundreds of travelers thwarted by the airline's continued problems caused by bad weather across the Northeast.

Carriers at the region's three major airports delayed or canceled scores of flights because of snow and ice this weekend, but most airlines had returned to close-to-normal operations by yesterday. A combination of factors, however, conspired to plague US Airways.

Spokeswoman Valerie Wunder said an ice storm at the airline's Philadelphia hub, combined with heavy spring break travel and ripple effects from two days of cancellations, played havoc with operations. The airline canceled 55 flights at National yesterday -- 12 on its main line and 43 on its express service.

"We're trying to accommodate more than 100,000 passengers systemwide," Wunder said.

Many of the unaccommodated were in US Airways check-in lines that stretched deep into Terminal C at National early yesterday afternoon. At 12:45 p.m., numerous passengers who had arrived about 7 a.m. for 10 a.m. flights said they had hardly advanced.

"We've moved maybe six feet for every hour-and-a-half," said Glen Davis of Schenectady, N.Y., who had missed his 8:30 flight to West Palm Beach, Fla.

Most irritating, passengers said, were the airline's apparent short-handedness and its inability to convey any information about their situation.

Douglas Taranow, a New York physician, held up his cellphone and said he'd been on hold for an hour and 45 minutes trying to speak to an airline representative.

Fisher, who said her charter flight was to leave from Guatemala City early this morning, tried to check before she left home.

"They don't pick up the phone. They don't put anything on their Web site," she said.

It wasn't much better in the terminal.

"They've announced prayer in the chapel five times, but nothing about what's happening," said Carol Bardenstein, associate professor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Michigan.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, several would-be US Airways passengers left the concourse in frustration and were trying to rent cars, a witness said.

Wunder said the carrier was doing the best it could under challenging conditions. "We're fully staffed and doing everything we can," she said. Asked when service at National would be back to normal, she said she wasn't sure. She recommended that those planning to fly today remain "a little flexible" with their plans.

Meanwhile, other carriers at National reported few problems. "We seem to be operating at 100 percent," a Delta spokesman said.

By Bill Turque

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