DALLAS -- A federal judge ordered pilots at American Airlines on Wednesday to end a sickout that has grounded 2,500 flights, stranded an estimated 200,000 travelers and left businesses scrambling to find new ways to ship cargo.
U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall chided the pilots union and the airline in issuing a temporary restraining order and told them to resume negotiating.
"It's silly for us to even be here," he said. "It's like killing a gnat with a sledge hammer."
Judge Kendall told the pilots to return to work today and warned they could be held in contempt of court if they don't. He also placed some blame for the dispute on the airline.
"If you would look up bad labor relations in the dictionary, you would have an American Airlines logo beside it," Judge Kendall said.
AMR Corp., the airline's parent company, had asked the judge to order pilots to stop calling in sick in the midst of a labor dispute about salaries paid to pilots of Reno Air, which it recently acquired. American pilots are barred by federal law from striking over the issue.
"They're threatening to bring the airline to a complete halt," AMR attorney Dee Kelly said.
The job action started Saturday after talks stalled over when pilots from Reno Air would be upgraded to the pay scale received by American's pilots.
On Wednesday, passengers struggled through another day of delays as they stared at flashing "Canceled" signs at many of the nation's major airports.
Nicole Travis, 15, of Long Island, N.Y., found herself stuck in Chicago, a city she had no intention of visiting. Ms. Travis said she stood in line for four hours at LaGuardia Airport in New York, then got booked on a United Airlines flight to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, hoping eventually to get to a planned vacation with relatives in Tampa, Fla.
"It was supposed to be an eight-day vacation, but now it's only seven days. This day was wasted," she said.
San Antonio businessman Ruel Martens was forced to hang out all day at the Chicago airport, hoping for a flight home on Continental Airlines that would get him home at 2 a.m. today.
"This is terrible. I would never have flown American if I had known," Mr. Martens said.
Still, some praised American employees for being friendly and helpful in getting them booked on other flights.
Charlie Hall of Dallas arrived in Chicago on a United flight that American helped him book. "I can't complain except that I lost frequent flier miles," said Mr. Hall.
However, the loss of American's cargo services was causing heartburn at Gladstone's 4 Fish restaurant in Malibu, Calif., where supplies of succulent dungeness crab from Alaska were dwindling.
"Gladstones has no freezers or microwaves. All of our food is fresh," said spokeswoman Christine Lloyd. "Our produce and fish is delivered daily, including Sunday. We rely heavily on things coming in every day."
In Miami, F C Forwarding, a small freight company that ships live animals, computers, and electronics -- mostly to Latin America -- decided earlier this week to find other shippers.
Adriana Rehm, a vice president, said the company does about 20 shipments a day, almost all with American.
"I can't tell you we've lost money because there are other alternatives to American, but it has been a major inconvenience," Ms. Rehm said. "We've had to scramble to get our stuff out on time and avoid customer dissatisfaction."
TWA, Delta and other airlines accepted American tickets in the same price class and waived the customary change of flight fee, as part of a common pact made between airlines.
"We're picking them up wherever we fly if American operates there, too," said Delta spokesman Bill Berry.
Airline analyst Raymond Neidl with Furman Selz Inc., estimated American is losing about or $1.5 million a day in net income.
However, he doubted the airline has alienated customers for the long term.
"The key question is how quickly will this business come back to American, and my guess is pretty quickly," he said.
Nonetheless, the number of cancellations has escalated each day of the dispute.
"Today we have 2,077 pilots on the sick row," airline spokesman John Hotard said.
American's 9,400 pilots, represented by the Allied Pilots Association, say the airline's parent company should add Reno Air pilots more quickly, thereby moving all employees up on its pay scale.
AMR said that it will take about 12 to 18 months to move pilots into their new positions and that the union's demand for pay raises would cost as much as $50 million this year.