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Harvey shuts down United flights, operations in Houston

The devastating floods wrought by Hurricane Harvey have grounded flights and shut down operations in Houston for Chicago-based United Airlines, with major flight disruptions expected throughout the week.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston — United's second-largest hub — is "closed until further notice" according to the airport's website, canceling about 480 United departures there on Monday.

"We are not operating today; we did not operate yesterday," Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman, said Monday.

Bush Airport will be closed until noon Thursday, McCarthy said, and United is offering waivers to passengers who need to change their travel plans.

United Airlines, which maintains a strong Houston connection from its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines, also has seen significant disruption to its business operations in the wake of the storm, which was a Category 4 hurricane when it swept in off the Texas Gulf Coast on Friday.

A United support center in downtown Houston was closed Monday, displacing 1,200 employees. United has about 11,000 total employees based in Houston.

"Our offices in downtown Houston will not be open today," McCarthy said. "I don't have timing on when they will reopen."

While Harvey has been downgraded to a tropical storm, with waters rising and a record rainfall of 50 inches forecast for some areas of southeast Texas through Thursday, the catastrophic flooding is expected to continue for days, the National Weather Service said.

Both Houston airports were closed Monday, with 1,162 departures and arrivals canceled at Bush and 339 at William P. Hobby Airport, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware, which is based in Houston.

FlightAware reported 13,781 delayed flights and 1,884 canceled flights across the U.S. as of Monday afternoon, with United and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines topping the cancellation list among airlines.

The flight-tracking service has been grappling with its own storm-related problems.

"Our Houston office is closed," FlightAware spokeswoman Sara Orsi said Monday. "We do have staff members who have been impacted, but we are maintaining normal operations in terms of the website."

While United passenger flights are grounded, the airline has been flying relief missions into Houston, providing emergency supplies to flood victims, McCarthy said. More than 100 United employees flew in between Sunday and Monday to help with the recovery.

United said it was expecting to get its roughly 200 remaining stranded passengers out of Houston on Monday night on a relief flight to Chicago. Weather waivers, which let passengers reschedule flights in and out of Houston before the storm hit, helped minimize the number of people stuck on the ground, the airline said.

United also is teaming up with the American Red Cross and other organizations by providing up to 3 million bonus frequent flyer miles to United customers who donate to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

The airline has pledged to match the first $200,000 raised, McCarthy said.

"The thoughts and hearts of the entire United family are fixed firmly on everyone impacted by Hurricane Harvey," United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a news release.

Dallas-based American Airlines also is supporting relief efforts by offering members of its frequent flyer program 10 miles for every dollar donated to the Red Cross through Sept. 24 with a $25 minimum donation.

American said that Harvey had "a limited impact" on its operations.

United completed its $3 billion acquisition of Houston-based Continental seven years ago, consolidating its headquarters in Chicago but maintaining deep roots in southeast Texas, where Continental was founded in 1934.

The airline is planning to move its Houston operations into a new 48-story downtown office tower this year. For now, United's Houston workforce has nowhere to go.

"Certainly people can work remotely, but obviously many people in Houston are impacted by this," McCarthy said. "So our focus right now is providing the support to our people who need assistance and to get the airport operating again."

McCarthy did not have projections for the financial impact of Harvey on the airline's operations as of Monday.

Lauren Zumbach contributed.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

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