Business | Aviation

AMR flight delays may benefit other carriers

Airline sees unprecedented maintenance requests from pilots

  • Bloomberg
  • Published: 14:02 September 22, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Bloomberg
  • American Airlines pilots protest at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on Thursday. American won approval of concessionary contracts with other labour groups while the pilot union remained a holdout. The pilots have appealed the bankruptcy judge’s decision to allow American to throw out their contract.

Dallas: American Airlines may risk having some passengers switch to other carriers as it grapples with flight delays that management blames on pilots reporting more maintenance issues on their planes.

Pilots are taking a “conservative mindset” in asking that any potential mechanical questions be resolved before flying, Tom Hoban, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said in an interview on Friday. American has cited those requests as a reason for turmoil in its schedule since September 14.

American’s 48 per cent on-time arrival rate since September 16 trails the 87 per cent at Delta Air Lines Inc. and 83 per cent at United Continental Holdings Inc., according to FlightStats.com, an industry data provider. The slowdown follows American’s voiding of its pilots’ contract last week and imposition of new terms to help the AMR Corp. unit restructure in bankruptcy.

“In the last few days, people have missed weddings and funerals because of this,” George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Virginia, said in an interview. “When they go back and talk to their friends, that will ring some very emotional chords and cause some booking away for a while. Business deals may have been lost or postponed because of this.”

American apologised on Friday to top-tier members of its frequent-flier programme in an email, after posting a similar message on its website earlier this week.

Seating capacity

The airline cancelled 550 flights from September 14 through September 23 and cut capacity through October by as much as 2 per cent in response. Maintenance, reservation and airport workers have been brought on board to provide more reliable service, Michael Trevino, a spokesman, said.

Maintenance issues reported by pilots in the past few days included a main fuel tank leak, a broken wind-shear warning device and failures during flights of an engine generator and a ground-proximity warning system, the pilots’ union said in a statement.

“We can’t ignore serious maintenance issues that could easily turn into safety risks,” Keith Wilson, union president, said. “Our pilots will not compromise safety, ever.”

American follows federally-mandated maintenance programmes that include periodic inspections and procedures for addressing issues when found, Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for the carrier, said in an emailed statement.

“No one at American is questioning normal maintenance write-ups and we must ensure that our safe operations continue each and every flight,” Hicks said.

However, the carrier has recently seen “unprecedented pilot maintenance write-ups, many at the time of scheduled departure, which is having an impact on our operation.”

Options for passengers

The carrier is willing to rebook passengers, even on other airlines, or to refund fares for travellers who choose to cancel, Suzanne Rubin, president of American’s AAdvantage loyalty programme, wrote in the letter to members.

“I am truly sorry for any inconvenience to you,” Rubin wrote. “I also want to let you know what’s going on and assure you that we stand ready to help.”

Fred Lowrance, an Avondale Partners LLC analyst based in Nashville, Tennessee, cancelled an American trip and rebooked on Delta on Thursday because he was on the last flight of the day and was concerned that it would be cancelled. Lowrance said he paid about $20 more (Dh73.5) for his Delta ticket.

“Right now, I don’t know that it has had that much of an impact,” Lowrance said on Friday. “But I think on the margins, there are definitely people like me who might be thinking if all else is close, they’d probably fly someone else.”

American has also blamed the delays and cancellations on a more than 20 per cent increase in pilots calling in ill. While sick calls have increased in September compared with a year earlier, the average rate has remained fairly steady during the past 12 months, Hoban said.

“They’ve declared war on this pilot group; that’s very clear,” he said. “Because of that, you’re going to find guys who are certainly going to make operational decisions with a conservative mindset to protect their job and livelihood.”

Slashing labour costs

Cutting more than $1 billion in annual labour costs is a central pillar in American’s bankruptcy. The airline cited industry-leading labour costs as a primary reason it sought court protection on November 29.

American won approval of concessionary contracts with other labour groups while the pilot union remained a holdout. The airline began sending notices this week for about 4,400 layoffs among mechanics, baggage handlers and other airport ground workers.

No flight attendant furloughs are expected after 2,205 workers took an early-retirement offer that includes a $40,000 payment, Hicks said on Friday. American will begin recruiting new attendants later this year for what would be the first new-hire class in that group since 2001.

The pilots have appealed the bankruptcy judge’s decision to allow American to throw out their contract and on Friday they asked the judge to suspend his order while their appeal is considered.

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