American Airlines in Turmoil: A Pilot's View

Editor’s note: The following article, based on an interview with an anonymous American Airlines pilot, is not intended to be a comprehensive look at the carrier’s ongoing struggles but simply a window into the perspective of the men and women who fly American’s planes.

“Pilots are unhappy,” said the veteran American Airlines pilot who spoke with FareCompare on the condition that his name not be used. This prompted the question, should passengers be scared? Absolutely not, said the pilot. “Nothing trumps our unwavering dedication to the safety of our passengers – nothing,” he stated flatly then added, “Remember, we’re right there in the airplane with you.”

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Pilots: “Enough is enough”

However, there is ongoing frustration. “An overwhelming number of our pilots have said, ‘Enough is enough’,” according to the anonymous pilot, who has flown for American for more than 20 years. The ‘enough’ he refers to is the clash with airline management which most recently and notoriously erupted into a series of ongoing delays and¬†cancellations¬† American has apologized to its passengers, cut its fall schedule between 1 percent and 2 percent and now wants to reopen talks with its union pilots.

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Unsanctioned Labor Strife

The anonymous pilot notes that there is no union-sanctioned job action and claims he is unaware of a big surge in the number of pilots calling in sick, though he adds that FAA regulations require crew members to “stay out of the cockpit if they are not fit, both mentally and physically.” Although his union, the Allied Pilots Association says the number of sick calls are “within normal historical range” it also acknowledges an increase in mechanical delays, but an APA press release says that isn’t surprising: “Although American Airlines operates the oldest fleet of any major U.S. carrier, management has decided to furlough a large number of mechanics and close one of its largest maintenance facilities.”

Yes, the anonymous pilot finally admits, there is “labor strife” though he adds it’s in no way organized. He also claims to have seen more and more “quiet support” from non-crew employees in recent days.

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Why Pilots are Unhappy

“Pilots are frustrated with American Airlines’ management,” he said and some of it has to do with money. Back in August, pilots rejected a tentative contract. Now after days of delays and¬†cancellations, American is seeking to reopen talks with the men and women in its cockpits.

The anonymous pilot is not unconvinced it will do much good because “American threw our last contract in the trash,” but is open to the possibility. He points out that pilot pay rates are nearly identical to those of 20 years ago (and the figures he cites are not adjusted for inflation). He also notes that he and his colleagues made many financial sacrifices in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Yet he goes on to say that “money is not the biggest issue” for the pilots. The real question is what kind of airline they’ll be left with once American emerges from bankruptcy.

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Goal: American and US Airways Merger

The goal of American pilots and management sounds similar: both want a strong viable airline. The difference is how to achieve this. Said the anonymous pilot, “We need management we have confidence in, and an airline with a [route] network we can count on.” He and his union see only one path: American emerging from bankruptcy, not as a ‘stand-alone’ airline, but as a merger partner with US Airways which is known to be interested.

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Published: September 27, 2012