United Airlines flights slowly resume after disruption

Crowds line up at the United Airlines counters in Terminal 1 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport this morning. Thousands of travelers were stranded after United's computer system shut down for several hours, leading to widespread cancellations Friday night. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune / June 18, 2011)

As United Airlines flights resumed this morning after a "network connectivity" problem disrupted service Friday night, the airline acknowledged that delays could persist through the weekend.

The unspecified computer issue was fixed early Saturday, but with thousands of passengers stranded or otherwise affected and flights already near full, there was little room for passengers to rebook.

"There's literally nowhere to put them," airline analyst Robert Mann said. "There are already very few empty seats on the flights that operate."

On the ground lines of passengers with their luggage snaked around O'Hare's Terminal 1, the United terminal, as passengers scrambled to get on flights.One of those in line was Gary Ward, 61, who said he had been stranded at O'Hare since early Friday afternoon, when he arrived from Cincinnati to connect to a flight to his hometown of Portland, Ore.

He boarded a plane at 4 p.m., but the plane returned to the gate and all the passengers disembarked, awaiting instructions on what to do next, he said. After spending most of the night running from one gate to another, passengers were told around midnight to book hotel rooms. United employees said they could not print hotel vouchers because of the computer problems, so passengers were told to submit their receipts to the airline for reimbursement.

"This is the third line I've been in today," Ward said, trying to catch a flight scheduled to leave in an hour, even though he was far from the front of the ticketing line. "I have no idea where my bags are."

Mary Kelley was one of a group of four people who were supposed to leave for Ireland on Friday to begin a week-long vacation. Instead, she and the rest of her group were taking turns standing in line today at O'Hare, trying to make sure they were all booked on the same flight.

Kelley and several other travelers said United did not have enough customer service employees at the airport and said they had spent hours waiting in line and calling the airline without success.

"We'll never fly United again," said Kelley, 53, of Madison, Wis. "Never ever. We will avoid it at all costs."

Most passengers stuck between connecting flights at O'Hare today had no idea where their luggage was.

Karyn Halloran, who was traveling with her husband to Ireland from their home in Oregon, said she was frustrated that United employees at O'Hare hadn't been able to provide much information to stranded travelers.

"It's really unfortunate, but they need to know how to handle this," said Halloran, 63, sitting on a bench today while her husband waited in line trying to book a new flight. "They need a Plan B. These things happen, but it shouldn't result in this."

United spokesman Charles Hobart said late Saturday afternoon that the airline didn't expect to cancel any more flights this weekend due to the computer problems, though delays might continue.

To try to alleviate today's congestion, the airline is allowing passengers with tickets on Saturday flights to cancel or delay their travel to a later date without charge. Luckily, Saturday is one of the lighter travel days.

The United website suggested checking status online. The website also lists this phone number: 1-800-864-8331.

At 7:15 p.m. Friday a computer outage that the airline attributed to a "network connectivity issue" disrupted the airline's flight departures, airport processing and reservation systems, according to a statement from United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart.

By midnight, a technology team assigned to the problem resolved the issue through troubleshooting procedures, the statement said.

Customers on affected flights are allowed to cancel or rebook their itineraries without penalty, according to the airline's waiver policy.

United also is offering status updates through its Twitter page.