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Let's hope American Airlines can find enough pilots willing to fly extra in December. Otherwise, it will be a mess for customers.

UPDATE: American Airlines said Thursday it is fixing the problem, noting that out of about 200,000 flights scheduled for December, the airline lacks pilots for only a “few hundred of them.” It said pilots are volunteering to work for extra pay, and said it expects more to agree to fly. It also said it has more reserve pilots than usual in December, and they will be assigned to fill in gaps.

“We have not canceled any scheduled flights in December and will continue to work to ensure both our pilots and our customers are cared for,” American said in a statement.

A couple of hours later on Thursday, the pilot union released its own statement, saying its “data does not support management’s statement regarding December flights that ‘only a few hundred’ are currently unassigned to pilots.”

According to the union, American’s system still list thousands of flights without pilots.

ORIGNAL STORY: American Airlines admitted Wednesday it has a problem. By mistake, it gave too many pilots time off in December, and now it is scrambling to ensure it has enough pilots to fly during the busy holiday period.

American is saying it can fix the problem by coaxing more pilots to work, and that holiday travel likely will not be affected. The airline’s pilot union is more pessimistic, warning American may not find enough pilots. “This is a crisis right now,” a union spokesman told Bloomberg. 

Here’s where things stand.

What Happened?

Due to a computer glitch, American allowed too many pilots to take time off in December, according to Bloomberg’s Mary Schlangenstein, who first reported the story. The problem could affect as any as 15,000 flights between Dec. 17 and Dec. 31, Bloomberg reported, citing figures from American’s pilot union, the Allied Pilots Association.

That estimate, though, could be a little high. In a note to pilots posted Tuesday, the union said, “thousands of flights currently do not have pilots assigned to fly them during the upcoming critical holiday period.”

Affected flights depart from Dallas-Fort Worth International, as well as airports in Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, Bloomberg reported.

According to Bloomberg, American’s computer system showed it had enough pilots to cover December flying, when it actually did not. The union said it was informed of the discrepancy on Nov. 24.

This is a much bigger issue than what happened in December 2016. Last year, the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported, American may have “unfairly” assigned 200 pilots to work on Christmas because of problems with the software that matches pilots to flights. At the time, American said it would pay those pilot forced to work Christmas twice their regular rate.

American also had a similar issue in December 2015 with about 400 of its flight attendants, The Street reported. Some flight attendants received as much as 300 percent of their usual pay for working flights, according to the publication.

Will American Cancel Flights?

In a statement Wednesday, American said passengers should not be concerned, saying it does not expect to cancel flights for the holiday season.

American will incentive pilots to work extra by paying them 150 percent of their hourly pay rate. According to American, that’s as much as the airline can pay them without violating the terms of their union contract.

Like all airlines, American also has back-up pilots scheduled to work, but they are not assigned to particular trips. Often, those pilots — called “reserve crews” — wait at or near the airport to step in if, say, another pilot calls in sick. 

What can customers do?

Customers with tickets on American have little recourse, at least for now. Airlines typically do not allow passengers to cancel or alter their itineraries for free until the airline actually starts canceling or delaying flights.

It’s probably best for passengers to take a wait-and-see approach. If all goes well, American will fix this problem, and all flights will go as scheduled.

Travelers who haven’t booked might consider another airline. Again, American probably will have enough pilots to fly, but why take the risk?

How is the Pilot Union Responding?

American management and its pilots union do not have the best relationship, and that’s apparent here. The union has blasted the company for overworking pilots, and criticized it for what it says are endemic culture problems. 

The union claims American is not handling the situation appropriately, and that the airline doesn’t have the right to pay pilots more money in hopes they will work more — at least without consulting the union. The Allied Pilots Association said Tuesday it has filed a grievance.

“Because management unilaterally created their solution in violation of the contract, neither APA nor the contract can guarantee the promised payment of the premium being offered,” the union told pilots.

The union slammed American management for failing to develop “collaborative solutions” to solve the problem.

“Management’s actions likewise jeopardize any collaborative effort to ensure our passengers have a pilot crew to take them to their important holiday events,” it told pilots.

Why Would Pilots Be Upset About Extra Pay?

Unionized pilots tend to be protective about their relations with management, and union leaders often don’t like it when an airline makes decisions without consulting them.

In July 2015, pilots at regional carrier Republic Airways — now called Republic Airline — sued their employer after it started paying pilots extra for working on their days off, and began offering special bonuses for new pilots. The union, which was in the midst of negotiating a new contract with pilots, argued the extra pay was undercutting its efforts.

Have Other Airlines Faced Similar Issues?

Ryanair disclosed a similar problem in September, saying it had mistakenly permitted too many pilots to take vacations this fall. Unlike at American, Ryanair executives said they did not think they could fix the problem quickly, and instead canceled many flights over several weeks.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary blamed “a failure within its pilot rostering function,” calling it a, “mess of our own making.”

It’s not likely American’s situation will be so bad. American may not have the best relations with its pilot union, but Ryanair historically has been far more antagonistic with its pilots, who are not represented by a traditional union. 


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Tags: Allied Pilots Association, american airlines, brands explained, pilots

Photo credit: American Airlines pilots confer in a Boeing 777. The airline might be facing a pilot shortage in December. Brandon Wade / American Airlines

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