'Crisis' Looms as American Airlines Gives Way Too Many Pilots Christmas Off

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American Airlines is rushing to resolve a scheduling fault that gave time off to too many pilots in December, a flaw that has left more than 15,000 flights without sufficient crew during the holiday rush, according to a union for the carrier's pilots.

The Allied Pilots Association estimated the number of affected flights, from Dec. 17 to Dec. 31, based on information provided by the carrier, said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the union.

"This is certainly not routine," Tajer says. "This is a crisis right now, and in that crisis, they've gone solo."

The computer-system problem will force American to rebuild its staffing schedule, similar to what airlines must do after major weather disruptions, says John Cox, chief executive officer of consultant Safety Operating Systems and a former commercial airline pilot. Revenue will take a hit if American has to scrub many flights. At a minimum, the carrier is likely to face higher labor costs just as investors are stepping up scrutiny of airline expenses.

"It will be a challenge, but I don't think there will be mass cancellations," Cox says. "There's going to be a lot of midnight oil spent on it, but I think they'll get the vast majority of them covered one way or another."

American spokesman Matt Miller declined to quantify the potential number of flights involved, saying the airline expects to correct the problem and avoid cancellations. Meanwhile, the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier is offering pilots 150 percent of their normal hourly wage to pick up some of the flights, the top rate laid out in their contract, Miller said.

The APA, representing 15,000 American pilots, has filed a grievance, saying the proposed solution violates its labor pact. The union wants to consult with American to find a solution that will motivate pilots to give up vacation they've already been granted after years of working over the holidays.

The glitch caused the scheduling system to show that American had ample staffing coverage for some planned flights when it actually didn't, according to Miller. The carrier has made adjustments to the system and expects it to operate smoothly from now on. American, the world's largest airline, operates about 6,700 flights a day.

-- Bloomberg News

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