Sudden changes to flight schedules are driving up fatigue reports and damaging morale for pilots at the nation’s largest airlines, say aviator unions, which plan to make the issue a top priority in new contract talks next year.
Pilots at American Airlines Group Inc. had about a 33 percent chance of being switched to a new or longer flight schedule during the summer’s peak travel season, the highest rate ever, according to Allied Pilots Association calculations based on company data. Aviators at Delta Air Lines Inc. say their rate is about the same, although the carrier disputed that.
The ability to change crew schedules, which is part of existing labor agreements, gives airlines an extra tool to shorten delays and keep more planes in the air. That reliability can help win customers and boost fares, though it comes with a price. Unexpected changes can squash morale and force pilots to turn down some flying because of fatigue.
“It drives up your costs, it wears out your people and consumes contractual and regulatory crew time you can never get back,” said aviation consultant Robert Mann. “It’s widespread throughout the industry.”
Consolidation in the U.S. airline industry is probably contributing to the problem as some carriers try to use outdated processes to manage larger, more complex networks with more hub airports, Mann said.
All airlines already pay pilots to remain on call to pick up trips when they need to plug holes because of illness, weather or personal emergencies. The number on call can range from below 15 percent of an airline’s pilots to more than 30 percent. Those whose schedules are changed can receive extra pay depending on the circumstances, such as flying on a day off.
Carriers can alter a pilot’s expected schedule when he or she reports for work, reroute them to different flights at any point in their day, or add and remove flights. They can be reassigned duty on days they were scheduled to have off. In other cases, a schedule may be shortened and the pilot will still be paid for the dropped flight.
“We reschedule pilots based on operational need and only do so when weather or other disruptions occur,” said Matt Miller, an American spokesman. “We understand the impact this can have on our pilots and we always try to balance that impact with the impact to our customers.”
Leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association say they’re determined to change work rules in their contract that date back to Delta’s emergence from bankruptcy in 2007. They begin talks on a new labor agreement in April. APA, which represents aviators at American, also will seek contract changes when negotiations with American start in January.
“The whole reroute issue is supposed to be an exception in the contract” for times when operations are disrupted, said Chad Smith, a Delta captain and head of the union’s negotiating committee. “We want the contract to allow for that. But more and more, it’s being used as an everyday tool for the convenience of the company.”
Southwest Airlines Pilots Association is concerned that reassignments are costly for the airline when they trigger premium pay, and can cause a cascading effect and additional operating issues, said spokesman Michael Trevino.
Southwest Airlines Co. will use its rescheduling option when it’s faster than waiting several hours for a reserve pilot to fly in from another city, said Steve Jones, director of flight operations crew planning. The carrier doesn’t typically stop to consider the cost of rescheduling a pilot over one already paid to be on standby, Jones said.
“We’re evaluating what’s the best thing to get passengers where they need to be,” he said. “Typically it’s not a cost question for us. If we have time to get a reserve, we’ll absolutely do it.”
The Dallas-based carrier’s percent of pilots whose schedules were changed nearly doubled to more than 20 percent in 2014, when new federal rules on pilot work and rest hours were adopted and steps were taken to better manage fatigue. The rate has been at least 20 percent each year since then, according to data from the pilots union.
Southwest has increased hiring, and is making fewer requests for pilots to fly on days off or on unscheduled overnights, Jones said.
Delta said 90 percent of its pilots system wide this year have flown the original schedule they signed up for, about the same as in 2017. “When we do need to adjust scheduling due to variables in the operation, we work to ensure minimal impact to customers and employees,” the carrier said.
Pilots who fly single-aisle airplanes on domestic routes through hub airports are the most likely to be rescheduled. APA said it has seen “a doubling to tripling” of fatigue calls linked to operations issues.
“From pilots I’m talking to, it’s probably also our biggest source of frustration,” said Sander Mertz, an American captain based in Philadelphia.
American’s flight attendants add their own complaints about scheduling that includes “long days, short overnights, early check-ins or sporadic trips” that violate their contract, said Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
Flight attendants from American and merger partner US Airways were integrated on Oct. 1, nearly five years after the carriers combined. A single operation should help American more efficiently set work schedules, said Jill Surdek, vice president of flight services.
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