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 yesterday. American has cited those requests as a reason for turmoil in its schedule since Sept. 14.
American’s 48 percent on-time arrival rate since Sept. 16 trails the 87 percent at Delta Air Lines Inc. and 83 percent 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 apologized yesterday to top-tier members of its frequent-flier program in an e-mail, after posting a similar message on its website earlier this week. Michael Trevino, a spokesman, declined to comment on whether passengers would move to other airlines from Fort Worth, Texas-based American.
The airline canceled 550 flights from Sept. 14 through Sept. 23 and cut capacity through October by as much as 2 percent in response. Maintenance, reservation and airport workers have been brought on board to provide more reliable service, Trevino 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,” said Keith Wilson, union president. “Our pilots will not compromise safety, ever.”
American follows federally-mandated maintenance programs that include periodic inspections and procedures for addressing issues when found, Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for the carrier, said in an e-mailed 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.”
The carrier is willing to rebook passengers, even on other airlines, or to refund fares for travelers who choose to cancel, Suzanne Rubin, president of American’s AAdvantage loyalty program, 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, canceled an American trip and rebooked on Delta on Sept. 20 because he was on the last flight of the day and was concerned that it would be canceled. Lowrance said he paid about $20 more for his Delta ticket.
“Right now I don’t know that it has had that much of an impact,” Lowrance said yesterday. “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 also has blamed the delays and cancellations on a more than 20 percent 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.”
Cutting more than $1 billion in annual labor costs is a central pillar in American’s bankruptcy. The airline cited industry-leading labor costs as a primary reason it sought court protection on Nov. 29.
American won approval of concessionary contracts with other labor 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 yesterday. 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 yesterday they asked the judge to suspend his order while their appeal is considered.