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American Cancels Hundreds of Flights: Are Pilots to Blame?

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Thousands of American Airlines (AAMRQ) passengers received bad news last week. The airline canceled hundreds of scheduled flights — many at a moment's notice.

American said its planes were grounded because of aircraft maintenance concerns and a high number of pilots calling out sick. According to American, pilots' "sick leave usage has been running higher than historical norms" and maintenance write-ups "have covered items such as torn seat pockets, frayed seat belts and malfunctioning coffee machines and passenger reading lights."

American Spokesman Bruce Hicks told The Wall Street Journal that management has "seen unprecedented pilot maintenance write-ups, many at the time of scheduled departure, which is having an impact on our operations" in the past two weeks.

AMR Corp., the parent company of American and the regional American Eagle division, cut more than 300 departures or a little more than 1 percent of its scheduled flights between Sept. 18 and Sept. 23. The Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union that represents American's 10,000 pilots, rejected claims that there was a concerted effort by the pilots to disrupt air travel by planning a sickout.

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"American Airlines pilots are trained professionals who are responsible for flying their passengers safely around the world every day," said APA President Keith Wilson said in a press release. "The list of unresolved maintenance issues grows every day on each of the aging aircraft we operate, and we can't ignore serious maintenance issues that could easily turn into safety risks. Our pilots will not compromise safety, ever. Understandably, our pilots are taking a prudent and cautious approach in their operational decision-making process."

The fraught relationship between American Airlines and its pilots intensified last November when the nation's No. 3 carrier entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. American ended its contract with the pilots union after a U.S. bankruptcy judge ruled earlier this month that the company could seek new employment terms.

American's push to reduce its labor costs and minimize its overall financial obligations has amplified as the company attempts to emerge from bankruptcy protection at the end of this year. American's cost-cutting plans could include slashing nearly 11,000 workers. The pilots union has yet to reach a new agreement with American management unlike the other unions in the airline industry.

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American also said it was reducing its flight schedule by 2 percent in October, a move that underscores the tension between American executives and pilots. Barbara Peterson, senior aviation correspondent at Conde Nast Traveler, says she suspects the pilots are orchestrating the flight delays and cancelations.

"Something is going on," she says in an interview with The Daily Ticker. "Pilots have been the most vociferous about their unhappiness with the airline and the company. They feel like they've had to give up a lot in recent years. Pilots are doing this to hurt the company so the company will come back to the bargaining table."

Peterson does not believe American will leave bankruptcy protection until it reaches an agreement with the pilots. The relationship between the two parties has become so strained, the pilots union has even publicly expressed their support for a merger with US Airways, an unusual alliance says Peterson.

"Unions usually do not support mergers," she notes. But the pilots "think they'll get a better deal" if two airlines joined forces.

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Consumers may want to avoid booking flights with American in the near term but that idea could backfire, Peterson says. American desperately needs the business and the number of available flights has fallen as all airlines cut capacity, making it difficult to avoid American completely. She has not seen a big outcry from American passengers over the past few days but that could quickly change if American's problems persist. Customer complaints about air travel in July totaled 2,466 -- double the number from July 2011, according to Peterson.

American Airlines posted these travel advisories to passengers stranded at its terminals for more than two hours:

  • Receive a full refund if you decide not to travel
  • Reaccommodate on another carrier if available
  • Change your American flight plans at no charge

Tell us what you think! Are you going to book your next flight on American?

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