Stop Calling 2019 Air Travel “The Summer From Hell,” That’s Reserved for United’s Meltdown 19 Years Ago

Justin Bachman wrote at Bloomberg that the combined grounding of the 737 MAX and sending TSA employees to work the US border with Mexico could together create a ‘summer from hell’ for air travelers. That nomenclature is being picked up broadly in media.

But to anyone in aviation with a memory “Summer From Hell” has a very specific and unique meaning. It’s the United Airlines summer of 2000 when the airline’s pilots brought the carrier to a standstill, chasing away a million customers and extracting a huge payout from the airline.

United Airlines pilots held a significant ownership stake in the airline, and a veto over key decisions like selection of a Chief Executive. Jim Goodwin became CEO with the union’s blessing in large measure because he was viewed as a weak negotiator. He wasn’t delivering the concessions the pilots wanted, however, and he was focused on acquiring US Airways and building a fractional jet ownership business (Avolar).

The airline’s pilots revolted, and this manifested itself in a work slowdown. American Airlines has taken its mechanics to court for the same thing, and in the past successfully sued its pilots. Pilots especially can bring down an airline. They’ll adopt strategies like:

  • Calling for maintenance to check out things that aren’t actually wrong with an aircraft
  • Refusing aircraft with minor maintenance issues
  • Not working overtime
  • Not answering the phone when the airline calls to come in on an unscheduled day
  • Taxiing slowly, taking up as much time as possible

United Boeing 747-400 in Stephen Wolf-ear Battleship Grey, (c) Eddie Maloney via Wikimedia Commons)

This doesn’t just delay a flight, it can lead to cancellations, and the delays themselves can cause crew to time out for the day leading to additional cancellations. Add in that Chicago weather was especially bad that summer (frequent severe thunderstorms).

Surprisingly United maagement didn’t file suit against their pilots union seeking an injunction for the work stoppage. However it can be difficult to prove without a smoking gun when employees do in fact show up for work and are simply ‘working to rule’ taking their time doing everything ‘by the book’. Ultimately during the summer of 2000 United cancelled over 25,000 flights, and delayed many more. United carried one million fewer passengers in August 2000 than it had the same month of 1999.

The Onion wrote about the summer’s troubles from the perspective of a Hamas militant who vowed never to fly United again.

“I do not have time for this,” said Hanani, seated at a Burger King in Concourse C, a plastic-explosives-filled duffel bag at his feet. “My jihad against the West was supposed to be carried out shortly after takeoff at 8:35 this morning. It is now 2:50 p.m. How much longer must I sit around this airport like an idiot before God’s will is done?”

…”Why are these airlines so incompetent?” Hanani asked fellow frustrated traveler Colleen Mayes, who was stranded at O’Hare when her Delta Airlines flight to Salt Lake City was canceled after a five-hour delay. “It can only be the lack of discipline in this corrupt, immoral Western country.”

“At least I am far less helpless than all the other Flight 225 passengers who wait with me,” continued Hanani, eating a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza he bought for “a ridiculous amount of money.” “Unlike them, I shall reach my destination–the Kingdom of Heaven.”

…For now, Hanani continues to wait. All he can do, he said, is hope there are no further delays.

“Upon my death, be it 6 p.m. or 9:30 or midnight, I know I shall be rewarded manifold for my stalwartness,” Hanani said. “But try my patience, this incompetent airline does. On the Day of Judgment, may United’s employees and those of its subsidiaries be condemned to the pits of Hell for all eternity.”

Here then-United CEO Jim Goodwin apologizes to customers:

The slowdown was eventually settled by United capitulating to union demands, offering an immediate 21.5% pay increase to narrow body pilots and 28.7% increase to widebody pilots, along with a promise of a 4% annual increase for four years. This set off higher union demands at competitors, and set United’s own mechanics in motion (the airline did sue their mechanics). The US Airways deal never happened. And then 9/11.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Fond memories from the Summer of 2000. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Teehee.

    I can recall flight att’s made fun of the owners (the boys upfront flying the plane).

  2. Japan has the right agreement with their unions, they don’t fight when the economy is good or bad. It’s stupid how most US unions whine how they don’t get a raise EVERY YEAR no matter what the economic situation is.

  3. Remember what the eastern pilots did to that airline. GONE. They killed their own jobs

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