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Official orders probe of airlines that stole Christmas

The weather ate our flight plans

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A US government official has called for an investigation into the problems that grounded over 1,000 US Airways and Comair flights last weekend.

US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta today ordered his department's Inspector General to probe the flight cancellations that left thousands of passengers stranded as they tried to travel on Christmas day.

"As you know, problems experienced this past holiday weekend by two air carriers - US Airways and Comair - severely disrupted travel for tens of thousands of passengers," Mineta wrote in a memo to Inspector General Ken Mead. "The two disruptions were unrelated, but combined they had a serious impact on holiday air travel. While the worst of it may be over, I am deeply concerned about the impact on the system and the continued hardship being endured by so many consumers. Therefore, I believe that we must learn from the situations to preclude their recurrence."

US Airways has blamed its problems on bad weather and "an usually high number of employees calling in sick," according to the Department of Transportation. The carrier cancelled flights, and failed to get thousands of bags to their destinations promptly.

Comair has cited a major computer malfunction for its woes. It was unable to book crew flight assignments because of the computer shutdown. The carrier cancelled several days worth of flights in more than a hundred cities.

"It is important that the Department and the traveling public understand what happened, why it happened, and whether the carriers properly planned for the holiday travel period and responded appropriately to consumer needs in the aftermath," Mineta said in a statement.

Even today, Comair - a regional carrier for Delta - is still only at 60 percent capacity. It doesn't expect to have all flights up and running until Dec. 29.

"Given the tremendous impact the winter weather had on our operation and infrastructure, we appreciate the continued understanding and patience of our customers whose travel plans were disrupted," the company said.

In his memo, Mineta noted that US Airways and Comair were the only two major carriers to blame holiday travel problems on bad weather. ®

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