Slater Convenes Airline Summit

Thursday, August 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Calling United Airlines ``the poster child for what is going wrong'' in the airline industry, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said Wednesday he is summoning the chiefs of all the major carriers to Washington to discuss rampant delays and cancellations.

Slater said the hastily arranged summit, to take place Monday, will also include airport and organized labor officials in an attempt to address the recent impact of weather, scheduling and other problems on the traveling public.

He intends to take the long view as well, noting that the number of airline passengers is expected to reach 670 million this year — a 20 million increase over last year — and grow to 1 billion within a decade.

``If you're straining the system right now with 650 million, 670 million, what do you do to ensure that the system can handle 1 billlion?'' asked Slater, who was in Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention.

``It's important that we deal with the service issues across the board and right now United, in many respects, is becoming sort of the poster child for what is going wrong,'' said Slater.

Spokesmen for the Air Line Pilots Association, the pilots union, and Air Transportation Association, which represents major U.S. air carriers, did not return calls seeking comment.

The Federal Aviation Administration released figures last week showing that flight delays in July were actually slightly less than last year, but that the number of flights arriving late in June was thousands higher than last summer.

United, the world's largest airline, is having its worst summer in years, as stormy weather and a standoff with its pilots unions have caused thousands of flight cancellations that have strained other carriers as passengers seek alternate flights. The airline also has racked up an abysmal on-time record.

``Service levels are obviously not where we want them to be,'' acknowledged United spokesman Joe Hopkins.

United put full-page advertisements in a dozen major newspapers Wednesday apologizing for the problems and promising better service. About 94 flights were canceled Wednesday out of about 2,400 domestic flights nationwide, Hopkins said.

The airline will participate in Slater's meeting, and is working hard to settle its dispute with its 10,000 pilots, whose contract expired in April, Hopkins said

However, Ken Bradley, a spokesman for the United unit of the Air Line Pilots Association, said that while low-level discussions are taking place, negotiating teams have not held formal talks since Friday.

Slater also said he took the unusual step of personally intervening in the situation at United. He and FAA head Jane Garvey flew to Chicago on Friday to meet with United Chief Executive Officer James E. Goodwin and union representative Rick Dubinsky.

Slater said he tried to impress on both sides the importance to the country of resolving their dispute, in part because of United's role ``as a pacesetter in the industry.''

``I am very hopeful that that matter will be resolved very soon,'' Slater said.