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Airline delays rise - and some blame stressed workers

Amid storms, glitches, and industry cost-cutting, January was the worst month for delays in six years.

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It's official. Americans are now flying the crowded, cranky skies.

Flight delays in January were the worst for that month since 1999, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And passenger complaints spiked dramatically, more than doubling since January a year ago and increasing 40 percent over December.

Weather is always the primary cause of delays, and there have been plenty of storms this winter. Add to that the US Airways Christmas baggage meltdown and Comair's computer failure, the combination of which left hundreds of thousands of fliers stranded at airports or without their luggage.

But aviation experts, pilots, and other airline employees see a deeper reason for both the increase in delays and passenger complaints: a demoralized and frustrated workforce that's being asked to do more even as it's getting paid less.

An analysis of the Department of Transportation data also indicates that a larger percentage of flight delays during December and January were caused by problems within the airlines' control, things such as maintenance and crew scheduling, than at any time since June of 2003. That's the first month that the DOT began tracking the distinct causes of delays.

"The legacy carriers' workforces are now so shell-shocked, angry, and demoralized that it's showing," says Kevin Mitchell of the Business Traveler's Coalition. "We're entering a new phase."

The airlines and unions are quick to praise their workers for rising to the challenge during these very difficult times in the aviation industry, as well as for carrying the brunt of the cost cutting. But unease is growing within the ranks. And passengers have noticed.

For instance, some of the so-called legacy (older) carriers now require gate agents to clean the planes as well as check people in. So some passengers have found themselves without a customer-service agent to talk to until just before the plane leaves. Pilots find themselves stuck at the gate because their crew of flight attendants has already worked as long as the FAA would allow them to. And sometimes there are only enough cargo loaders to load one plane, so if two planes need to be loaded or unloaded the entire system gets backed up.

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