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Guess which of this country's major airlines is consistently landing at the bottom of the Transportation Department's on-time rankings for the first time? Our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa, reveals the answer and says if you absolutely, positively have to be some where on time, you best choose your airline carefully.

United Labor Woes
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace


United Airlines is in big trouble. Two months ago, I first mentioned that a refusal on the part of United pilots to work overtime was beginning to hurt the airline's on-time performance. The pilots' contract expired in April, and some pilots began declining overtime, crippling the airline. Now the situation has reached crisis proportions. You simply cannot count on getting to your destination on time if you're flying United. But only in the past week has the crisis received widespread attention, and neither the pilots nor the airline are eager to talk about it.

In May, when I first warned of United's problems, I didn't know how grim the situation already was. Listen to these stats. The Transportation Department says United came in dead last that month, number 10 of the country's 10 major airlines. Only slightly more than half, 56 percent, of United flights landed within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival times. Some never even took off. The number one on-time airline in May, by the way, was Delta; 80 percent of its flights landed on time.

Of the 33 worst domestic flights, those that landed late 80 per cent or more of the time, all but six were United flights. And it's not just United's domestic operation that's suffered. In June, my flight from L.A. to Paris left five hours late. In July, my United flight from Washington, D.C. to Frankfurt never got off the ground. Neither did a couple other international flights that night from Dulles. Mechanical difficulty, United said. "Right," confided a United employee to me, "three new triple-sevens all have mechanical difficulty the same night?"

I predict June and July's figures will be even more dismal for United.

Knowing it was facing problems, United cut about 1,500 flights in July before the month began. It's cut 1,800 this month and is planning to cut 2,000 in September. But even that hasn't prevented major headaches. Last Saturday, for example, United canceled 150 flights at Chicago's O'Hare airport and another 120 on Sunday.

Now, the airline says it's working hard with a federal mediator to reach an agreement with its pilots. It's hoping for a September resolution. But there's no guarantee of that. So if timeliness is important to you, consider alternative airlines. If you must fly United, ask for a paper ticket, not an electronic one. That way, if your flight is delayed or cancelled and you must be transferred to another airline, the process will go much faster.

For the first time, United is making America West look good. The Phoenix-based airline usually brings up the rear on the Department of Late Flights list. Taking a page from United, American West just announced it was cutting flights in an attempt to improve its on-time performance.

United's woes come at a bad time for passengers. Summer is prime flying time. It's also bad timing for the airline. It's trying to convince Uncle Sam its purchase of US Airways will be good for the country.

I'm Rudy Maxa, The Savvy Traveler, for Marketplace.

The Savvy Traveler on Marketplace

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