Thousands of Air Travelers in Limbo

Days of bad weather, a computer malfunction and sick airline employees put tens of thousands of travelers in holiday limbo Saturday, with Comair (search) canceling all its flights and US Airways trying to reconnect thousands of pieces of luggage with their owners.

Throngs of waiting passengers milled about at Comair's hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. At Philadelphia International Airport, several hundred people stood in long lines at sparsely staffed US Airways (search) check-in counters and piles of suitcases were scattered throughout the baggage claim area.

Cynthia Mayer, waiting to return home to Hilton Head, S.C., on a Comair flight from Cincinnati, lost both her flight and her luggage, and said her earliest flight home would be late Monday night.

"They offered me a toothbrush — a kit with a toothpaste and a toothbrush," Mayer said, chuckling.

Comair, a Delta Air Lines (search) subsidiary, canceled all its 1,100 flights on Saturday because computer problems knocked out its system that manages flight assignments, company spokesman Nick Miller said. The cancellations affected 30,000 travelers in 118 cities, he said.

Miller said the company was trying to put travelers on Delta flights. Crews were working to see how many flights Comair could handle Sunday, but nothing was definite.

"It's been a very busy holiday season and we deeply regret this problem for our customers," Miller said.

Miller said the problem was triggered in part by flights canceled Thursday and Friday because of a winter storm that hit Ohio particularly hard. The airline had canceled most of its Thursday flights after it ran critically low on de-icer fluid.

"There was a cumulative effect with the canceled flights and trying to get crew assigned that caused the system to be overwhelmed," he said. "It just stopped operating."

US Airways, meanwhile, had passengers and thousands of pieces of luggage stranded at Philadelphia International Airport — for the third day in a row.

Bleary-eyed John Price watched Saturday as airport workers sorted piles of unclaimed bags — none of them the suitcase full of presents for relatives he had checked on his Phoenix-to-Philadelphia flight Friday.

"I can't show up empty-handed. That just doesn't cut it," he said.

The airline blamed the canceled flights and baggage backups on severe weather Thursday compunded by record numbers of employees calling in sick, according to a company statement.

Systemwide, the airline canceled 80 flights Saturday and 100 flights Friday, airline spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.

Spokespeople for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents US Airways baggage handlers, and the Association of Flight Attendants said they had not organized any job actions.

"There is no union action. It's poor management planning, that's my opinion. ... We have sick calls every single year around the holiday," said Teddy Xidas, president of Association of Flight Attendants Local 40 in Pittsburgh.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta has directed senior officials to talk with US Airways management about problems at the airport, Transportation Department spokesman Robert Johnson said Saturday.

Philadelphia is a US Airways hub, but the baggage backups extended to other East Coast airports.

In Virginia, hundreds of unclaimed bags from US Airways flights were piled at Richmond International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Shirley Malave flew from Philadelphia to Florida on Saturday to be with relatives, but when she arrived in Tampa she discovered her luggage wasn't on the US Airways plane with her. She waited for two more flights from Philadelphia, but her luggage was on neither.

"They ruined everybody's Christmas," said Malave, who lives near Tom's River, N.J.

She was offered a $50 stipend to buy clothes, but on Christmas Day, "good luck trying to find something open," she said. "I have no clothes. Nothing."

Extra flights carrying nothing but luggage were scheduled to fly from Philadelphia to the airline's bag processing facility in Charlotte, N.C., where workers could help process bags more quickly, Kudwa said.

In Tampa and Miami, baggage delays on Delta flights were also reported. The airline did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Struggling US Airways, bankrupt for the second time in two years, says it needs to drastically cut labor costs if it is to survive beyond mid-January, when its interim financing arrangement with the federal government's Air Transportation Stabilization Board is set to expire.

US Airways reservations and gate agents approved a new contract Thursday that cut pay by 13 percent. The airline still needs deals from its flight attendants and its machinists' union.