Travelers face multiple problems over holiday weekend

By Zach Porter

Mother Nature and Father Time teamed up over the holiday weekend to create a Christmas nightmare for airline travelers on the East Coast.

US Airways said it went through an "operational meltdown," while Comair is just getting back in the air after being grounded over the weekend.

And the cold reality didn't stop in the Northeast... it was felt all the way down in Atlanta at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the nation's busiest passenger airport.

Monday afternoon, the Minkler family, traveling from Dothan, Ala., to Syracuse, N.Y., had been waiting to fly out of Hartsfield-Jackson for almost 24 hours.

"We've had everything from mechanical problems on airplanes to computer problems, and we missed a connecting flight," said Ryan Minkler, who was sitting in the airport atrium with his wife Terri, and children Alyssa, 9, and Joshua, 4.

The family missed a connecting flight with Delta here in Atlanta because they were delayed getting off the ground in Dothan due to mechanical problems with the Comair plane bringing them to Hartsfield-Jackson. "We're just waiting to see if we can get a flight out of here tonight (to Syracuse). They told us it might not happen because of high winds in New York."

Nature struck first, last week, with a heavy winter storm in the Ohio Valley, that spelled trouble for Comair, a regional carrier based at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport that serves 30,000 passengers a day.

Time became a factor when delays and cancellations from the storm built-up to the point the Comair computer system crashed.

Comair, a subsidiary of Delta, said it hoped to be back to 100 percent capacity by Wednesday, after reaching 60 percent capacity Monday.

US Airways was also digging itself out of what CEO Bruce Lakefield called an operational meltdown that saw hundreds of flights canceled from Friday to Sunday. The meltdown occurred because of the winter weather and was exacerbated by a high number of US Airways employees - baggage handlers, flight attendants and ramp workers - who called in sick.

The result was a growing mountain of baggage that began piling up in Philadelphia. Over the weekend, US Airways was dispatching luggage-only flights in an effort to get suitcases to their owners.

At the U.S. Airways baggage claim at Hartsfield-Jackson Monday, several people dropped in with their claim tickets only to come away empty handed.

"I've been here three times in as many days, and still I have no luggage," said Carolyn Miles, 52, a traveler from Salisbury, Md. Miles said that the airline made no attempt to explain the luggage problem but simply told her to file a claim.

"They gave me three different numbers to call," she said. "One was busy, and the other two I got no answer. The most frustrating thing is that they can't even track it (my baggage) online. They can't even tell me where it is."

Adding insult to injury, Mother Nature struck again with another winter storm, which dumped snow and ice on the northeast late Sunday and early Monday, almost closing Boston's Logan International Airport. Early Monday, the airport was operating with only one runway, a fact accentuated by the lack of any flights from Boston into Hartsfield-Jackson.

Dan Ciarametaro, 36, was facing a triple threat: He flew in from Boston, his luggage was missing, and his Christmas gifts were in his suitcases. He had a 6 p.m. flight to catch with U.S. Airways Monday night and was staying in the U.S. Airways baggage area at Hartsfield-Jackson waiting for some good news.

"One box was entirely filled with gifts for my girlfriend so she never got them," Ciarametaro said. "I was hoping I could find my luggage and they could send it back to Boston with me, but I guess that is a pipe dream," he said.

Meanwhile, later Monday, the Minklers got a glimmer of hope that they might be on their way out of Atlanta sometime later that evening... though nothing was for sure.

"We've been trying to treat it as one big adventure but they're starting to wear out a little bit," Minkler said, speaking of his two restless children who were ready to take to the skies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.