American Airlines’ recent decision to cancel about 1 percent of its flights through mid-July appears to reflect a wider problem among U.S. airlines that saw a high percentage of workers idled during the Covid pandemic. But misconceptions about the underlying reasons persist, and American’s explanations for its move have met with some pushback from the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing the airline’s flight-deck crew.
While American concedes that the sudden acceleration of customer demand has challenged its ability to provide enough flight capacity, in a statement to AIN it primarily blamed weather events during the first half of June for the high number of cancellations during the period. During the first 15 days of the month, it encountered nine days of bad weather affecting at least one of its hubs, most notably Dallas-Fort Worth and Charlotte, North Carolina, it said. The airline also cited several “multi-hour” ground stops that have affected not only aircraft routing but crew routing. Major weather events, it added, can result in crews exceeding their eligible work times and the need to reroute them based on flight changes.
“The first few weeks of June have brought unprecedented weather to our largest hubs, heavily impacting our operation and causing delays, canceled flights, and disruptions to crewmember schedules and our customers’ plans,” said the airline in the written statement. “That, combined with the labor shortages some of our vendors are contending with and the incredibly quick ramp-up of customer demand has led us to build in additional resilience and certainty to our operation by adjusting a small fraction of our scheduled flying through mid-July.”
In a recent interview with AIN, Allied Pilots Association communications committee chairman Capt. Dennis Tajer asserted that although the weather played a part in some of the cancellations, it doesn’t explain what he characterized as management’s rigidity in its scheduling practices and its furlough of 1,600 pilots during an interruption to the U.S. government’s Payroll Support Program (PSP) last October. Since the start of the pandemic, another 1,000 pilots have taken early retirement, exacerbating a training backlog that Tajer said resulted from “self-mutilation” on the part of management.
“You can’t build an airline anticipating clear skies,” said Tajer. “An airline is measured on how well it performs when the weather hits…The weather exposed a weakness in [management’s] operational plan.”
Although Tajer didn’t deny that American’s pilot-training organization has come under stress due to an extraordinary need for pilots returning from leave or furlough to fulfill their recurrent training requirements, he criticized the company for a resistance to cooperating with the pilot group to find solutions to its scheduling problem.
Tajer further explained that the company “locked down” its IT system, leaving little scheduling flexibility for pilots who might want to change shifts to opt for overtime flying, for example. “This is the bane of your existence in ops right now,” he said. “We want to be able to trip trade to help you out. But when they lock it down, they tell the computer ‘don’t let anyone do anything.’ So it’s essentially a dead system.”
Tajer did concede that the problems that led to the cancellations weren’t wholly confined to American, noting that Delta Air Lines, for example, also had to scrap flights during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays due to a shortage of pilots. Training bottlenecks have plagued the industry as a whole, as every retirement or “early out” at a major airline results in six pilot seat movements, according to Brad Thress, president and CEO of FlightSafety International. Although it derives little of its revenue from major-airline business, FlightSafety counts several regional airlines among its clientele, training demand from which Thress said has resulted in at least a six-month backlog at his company.
“As [the majors] rehire and take people off furlough that they need to get current, it causes this ricochet effect where, for example, a seat in a 787 international opens up and someone from a 737 domestic bids to that, and then somebody that’s a copilot on a 737 domestic bids to that…and that creates a tremendous backlog and kind of a logjam," he explained.
Thress noted that every move of a pilot from a regional to a major generates an average of two and a half moves within his system, equating to about 20 hours of training demand for FlightSafety.
“And so we've kind of sold out of our capacity on the [Embraer] E170 and 190,” he confirmed. “And I would say that of our customer base, about 30 percent are in that go-go mode.”