United cancels hundreds of flights

Looks like United will be joining Northwest in the airline cancellation hall of shame. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago-based airline canceled more than 600 flights over the past three days despite the fact that the weather over Chicago has been clear. United officials said the airline was still recovering from a weekend storm, but United pilots claim a staffing shortage, not bad weather, is to blame. This past summer, Northwest encountered similar difficulties, canceling hundreds of flights due to a severe pilot shortage.

As reported by the Tribune, financial troubles forced United to trim its number of pilots by about a third between 2001 and 2006. Yet the airline, like most other U.S. carriers, is currently operating a full schedule with most flights flying at or near capacity, leaving little margin for error should problems arise. Pilots are contracted to work a set number of hours per month, and if they lose time dealing with delays early in the month, they may reach their time limit too quickly and be unable to operate their flights scheduled later in the month.

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That's exactly what happened to United this week, says the pilot's union, who blame airline management for the staff shortage. In order to keep flights running on schedule through the new year, United will need pilots to volunteer to work extra time.

I'm not too optimistic about pilots signing up for extra flights in droves, given their animosity toward United's management. If you're flying United over New Year's, you should be prepared to encounter delays or cancellations. Check out our tips on avoiding holiday travel mishaps before you go.

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