Are American’s Pilots Engaged in a Sick Out?

FlightStats.com has some really interesting tools.

I’ve written in the past how to use the site to look up award availability on a variety of airlines.

You can also look up on-time statistics, taking a variety of slices. One of those is looking at a given airline’s stats for the previous, current, and next day.

And looking at yesterday, American Airlines seems to have had to cancel about 5% of its flights.

And already today they’ve cancelled a bit over 5% of their schedule.

As part of its bankruptcy restructuring, American received court approval to make changes to its pilots contract. (Pilots were the only group that didn’t come to a new labor agreement with the airline, voting down a contract sent out by union leadership.)

Last week the airline imposed new terms on its pilots including changes that allow the airline to do more revenue sharing and outsourced regional flying.

Which naturally leads on to wonder whether the flight cancellations are related to the imposition of new contract terms on pilots.. a sick out?

Back in 1999 when American acquired Reno Air, pilots staged a sick out. Under the Railway Labor Act, airline workers can’t unilaterally strike, including through a de facto sick out.

American went to court and got an injunction, the sick out continued, and then the airline obtained a judgment against the pilots union for over $40 million — representing the airline’s losses due to the sickout from the time the injunction was issued until the sick out ended.

The judgment was upheld by a federal appeals court, the union appealed to the Supreme Court which declined to hear the case. The judgment was for an amount greater than the assets of the union. Ultimately American forgave an unpaid $26 million of the judgment as part of its 2003 pilots’ contract.

Currently the pilots union says that they’re even less willing than before to agree to a new contract, now that the airline has imposed new terms. I suspect that’s just a bargaining position, they’re relatively weak after the court voided their existing agreement and the union’s leadership has to take a strong stance since the previous leadership (which had agreed to a contract, but was voted down by the union’s membership) was ousted for being too accomodating.

Is there a sickout underway? I reached out to American Airlines to comment, and here was their statement:

We are constantly evaluating our schedule based on operational and staffing resources, as well as seasonal demand, making adjustments when necessary. The schedule adjustments we are implementing will ensure we provide our customers with reliable service while minimizing any impact to their travel plans.

For what it’s worth, I don’t read that as a denial.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, ah…didn’t see it. I guess it’s all over already!

    Good luck AA. And pilots: don’t forget that it’s customers who pay your salary, not AA. History shows that those who forget this end up badly.

  2. Hi Gary

    I work in Boston Air Traffic control tower, I dont know about the sickout but I can tell you from first hand experience, they are taxing extremely slowly to and off the runway, matter a fact last night and an aircraft on tow beat and american 757 taxing. I feel bad for those customers that are on a plane for 6 hours and it takes 12 minutes to get to the gate versus 6 minutes before

  3. I have had mysterious mechanical delays and/or cancellations on 5 of my last 6 flights this month. I am definitely suspicious.

  4. Something is definitely afoot. As previously mentioned. Taxi times are already ridiculous. At DFW, 15+ minute taxis are the norm right now. I noticed it last week and I expect the same this week.

  5. Work at DFW 13 years and have nerver seen it this BAD.
    Everday we have 30+ cancelled filghts, AA is not tell the whole truth.

  6. I have a question for ATC professionals…

    Can ATC instruct pilots to maintain a minimum taxi speed until they reach the apron? This selfish behavior by AA pilots does not only impact customers, but it definitely will hamper ground operations and impact other planes around them. If you can tell the pilot to grow up and instruct them to taxi at a minimum of 15 knots. I am pretty sure the pilots will comply unless they want to risk losing their pilot certificate, which is much worse than being fired.

  7. I looked at some flights out of SEA yesterday and found two that were delayed over 2 hours, and in each case when they did depart they taxied for more than 20 minutes… Out of SEA. In one case, it was a red-eye that was leaving at 2 AM. No possible way any aircraft would need to taxi for 20 minutes in Seattle… This is very unprofessional on the part of the AA pilots.

  8. Ladies & Gents,
    1) AMR threw out the Pilot’s contract. Therefore, there are very little protections from the union. Pilots are required to be very safe and cautious in everything they do so as to protect themselves from the FAA. It’s their license and livelihood that is on the line every time they strap themselves into the jet to take you on your merry way to your destinations. They’re distracted. They’re worried about their families and how they’re going to pay their bills. Do you want them rushing through checklists? AMR has chosen to treat their most valued, and highly skilled employees worse than you would your dog. Until you’ve walked in their shoes, don’t judge them.

  9. Agreed Mike P, Some of these pilots have had their pensions that were supposed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement, stolen from them with nothing to replace the losses as they don’t have any conractual retirements in place now. Meanwhile, the executive team which couldn’t managed to guide the corporation into failure after failure until bankruptcy has their retirement package set aside into a bankruptcy proof parachute, no losses for them. I’d rather have happy pilots and a fired executive team myself. Go for it pilots, I’ll suffer for a while until you make your point to the greedy corporate types.

  10. Just curious, do ANY of you have any idea what the FARs (federal aviation regulations) say about taxi speeds? How fast, by regulation, is a pilot allowed to taxi? I will give you a hint, it is nowhere near as fast as “15 knots minimum”. Ever think it may be all of the others that are breaking the rules?
    Stephen

  11. First, pilot sick calls are actually lower at AA than before their contract was abrogated.
    Second, The FAA is allover American flights with oversight.
    Third, Pilots at AA have always given well beyond 100% (more like 115-120%) in effort and professionalism. Just the fact that they have throttled back to 100% choosing to only do their jobs and not interveen in other departments looks like a slow down. With the added FAA oversight they are being extremely careful about every aspect of their jobs. No pilot is willing to risk a possible FAA violation just to get the job done. They have always been very safe but now they are just being extra vigilant. It would be like you having a supervisor or biss looking over your shoulder every minute of the day looking for you to miss something. If you do miss something you can be fined and or loose your pilots certificate and then loose your job. So I give them credit for their vigilance.
    As far as taxi speeds – It is recommended and also stated in most Air Carriers Part1 manuals (regulatory by nature) to taxi no faster than is operationally safe. Usually no faster than a brisk walk. No where near 15 KTS.
    These pilots are in a struggle for survival.
    The management of this company is stealing their retirement accounts, telling them they must work longer hours (up to 100 flight hrs per month), more days per month and up to 14 hrs per day (up to 21-24 days a month away from home), and receive less rest between flights (many times as little as 8 hrs rest). The pilots are not breaking any laws or performing any illegal job actions. They are simple doing their jobs and only their jobs to the utmost safety levels.
    I also believe today that American Airlines has also announced nearly 11,000+ layoffs within maintenance and ground personel. You think thins are bad now just wait. They have also announced much of their maintenance will be performed overseas in China. Funny AMERICAN Airlines does not even use AMERICAN workers to maintain their aircraft anymore. This alone should get the general public madder than a wet hornet.
    And all everyone wants to do is blame the pilots.
    I don’t think so!

  12. @MikeP & @Michael – So you guys are saying it’s OK for pilots to provide crappy customer service because they’re pissed off at management?

  13. Here are some facts for you folks that supposedly pay our salary:

    1) FAR’s state an aircraft shall not taxi faster than a brisk walk. How long does it take you to walk two miles or more?

    2) Airports perform most of their runway and taxiway maintenance at night when airport operations are at a minimum. Taxiing on an airport, at night, with numerous taxiways, ramp areas, runways closed is not easy. We don’t have moving map displays for ground operations unlike navigation installed in your automobile. I have to look at a black and white paper chart that’s 5.5″ wide by 8.5″ tall, then look outside and repeat as necessary.

    3) Why taxi fast to the end of the runway, only to wait in a long line of traffic departing. Often we have to wait for our ‘numbers’ which is sent via radio from our company once we leave the gate. The ‘numbers’ consist of passenger weights, baggage and cargo weights, takeoff weight of the aircraft and other performance related data. With last minute passengers and their checked luggage, this data often arrives while waiting at the departure end of the runway. So why rush?

    4) Rarely do I fly a jet that’s 100% functional. There are hundreds of items on an aircraft that can be inoperative, yet still legal to fly. The FAA, aircraft mfg, and the airline write a thick manual called the MEL (Minimum Equipment List) that allows the airline to continue to operate the aircraft for a determined amount of time.

    5) Don’t believe everything AA publishes is the gospel truth. Remember the FAA grounding the MD-80 a few years ago in the summer? They claimed they were repaired, yet the Feds stated otherwise. Management has created this toxic workplace by the usual pointing of fingers (blame) as of lately on pilots. Most of the cancellations are due to lack of crew (pilots and/or flight attendants). They still have 649 pilots of furlogh, and wanted to furlogh another 400 this summer. If a flight can’t leave a hub due to crew or a mechanical issue, it can’t return back to the hub. So now one leg cancelled turns into a minimum of two.

    6) Why do we, the employees, have to subsidize cheap airfares? When the cost of oil goes up, do you not pay more for goods and services? As of this writing, JFK to LAX nonstop airfares start at $318 and up, how much did you pay in 1992 or 1982 for the same flight? Were you paying north of $4 for a gallon of gas for your car back then?

    I can continue if you like, but I’ll digress.

  14. Brian
    Economic pressure is all that AMR understands and responds to. Unfortunately, in war, collateral damage will occur.

  15. For us its a fine balance we can give pilots instructions to and from the runway but unfortunately we have no authority on the speed because at the end of the day they are responsible for the plane and they can claim they are running checklist or something or that a passenger stood up.

  16. @Mike P, so inconveniencing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of passengers a day is “collateral damage” in pilot’s battle with management? That’s disgusting but sadly anyone who travels US majors frequently would not be surprised that the airlines from back room to board room have precious little regard or respect for their passengers.

    @impilot, pleading the case for safety but then giving excuses betrays you.

    I feel sorry for those AA passengers who are traveling right now due to illness or death, to the elderly, those traveling with young families, those with health issues … heck, even those with connections … when the airline and its staff once again look out for itself first and foremost and passengers come a distant third.

    Like most people, my natural allegiance is usually with the worker, not the corporation but making me an unknowing victim of your behavior you turn an ally into a foe.

    Here’s an idea, why not get passengers *on* your side rather than make them suffer due to your behavior?

    But hey, what do I know, I’m just self-loading cargo.

  17. If most flights are cancelled due to “Unable to Crew” or “Crew Legality” then you have your answer. I had too many relatives and friends who lost their jobs when Eastern went under to have any understanding for airline employee slow downs.

  18. @MikeP – Collateral damage like me choosing to fly an airline where the pilots don’t pull crap like this? Thereby depriving the company of revenue? Meaning less revenue will work its way down to the pilots? If enough people do that, the AA brass will be out of jobs, and so will the AA pilots.

  19. @Airline Pilot – “supposedly pay our salary” What do mean by supposedly? Where is your salary going to come from if not from the passengers?

  20. @Impilot – “Funny AMERICAN Airlines does not even use AMERICAN workers to maintain their aircraft anymore. This alone should get the general public madder than a wet hornet.” The general public doesn’t care about that as much as they do cheap fares.

  21. I find that hard to believe that you DO NOT taxi at 15 knots on a long straight line. That is 17 MPH, and 80%+ of the flights I have been on does taxi around 15 knots if it is a long straight line [I mostly fly in/out PIT, LAX, IAH, EWR, IAD, JFK*, ATL, etc]. From Terminal 4 to runway 25R at LAX is just under 1 1/4 mile, and if you taxi at brisk walking pace, it will take close to 15 minutes, but we are always at the hold point within 5 minutes once we exit the apron onto Taxiway B. At ATL, when landing on 26R, planes almost always exit the runway at B5 and continue down on B at a much faster pace than walking pace until they reach the end of the airfield before turning to head down to the terminals.

    I know the pilot’s manual says no faster than a brisk walk, but every pilot I know say they taxi at an average of 15-20 MPH outside of the lines and close to 10 inside the lines.

    I do hope when the ATC tells you to cross an active runway fast, you don’t move at 5 kts.

    *JFK rarely taxi faster than 5 knots, always a long slow taxi to/from the runway.

  22. I thought there is stil a serious shortage of experienced pilots worldwide. It this an option for many AA pilots to get a good contract from one of the Asian/Arab airlines?

  23. Employees are not anxious to keep correcting management mistakes. In 2003 management crafted “pull together, win together” by cutting employee pay and benefits by over 33%. Executives then paid themselves big bonuses every year financed by the employees’ sacrifice. The pilots have refused to go along with another employee financed executive bailout. American has had more cancelled flights than all other airlines combined. As discontent grows, so does the cancelled flights.

  24. @ DDKen and @ Brian:

    Unless you are an airline pilot, you cannot fathom what it takes to become one, and remain so. For everything it takes to become, fly as, and remain, a pilot for a major airline, they are woefully under-compensated. If you disagree, then you’ll never understand because you have, probably, never sat down and really spoken to one about what it takes. Unfortunately, the lies and exaggerations that have been perpetuated by the ATA make it virtually impossible convince you otherwise. So be it.
    You see, a doctor, with one wrong move, kills one person. A pilot, with one wrong move, can kill hundreds. No one has a problem with a neurosurgeon making $300k. You expect your pilots to make less than half that, and to subsidize your airfare. Yet you entrust your life and those of your family to the two up front. Shouldn’t they be properly compensated?
    It’s sad that things have come to this, but AMR’s hijinks must be stopped.

  25. Mike P – I feel you have gone overboard to attempt to compare a commerical pilot to a neurosugeon. How many years of formal eduction and job training has that person completed to earn their $300K.

    If that is your comparsion, then a pilot at less than half is extremely well compensated.

    Like the rest of us, if you don’t like it go find another job – same applies to these pampered AA pilots

  26. @MikeP – So it’s OK for AA employees (pilots in this case) to provide bad customer service (on purpose, no less) because they think they don’t get paid enough? They may not get paid enough, but that’s no excuse for deliberately providing poor service to their customers.

  27. Actually, the pilots have just stopped doing everyone else’s jobs.
    As self-centered as this may sound, in the Air Force, the entire mission was to fly the airplanes. That means that every single job, however important it may be, was to provide support for the flight. Who is ultimately responsible for the flight? The pilot. The airplane does not move without the pilot. So in essence, everyone’s job was to support the pilot and the mission.
    Now, with the airline. Not groundline – but AIRline. Without the pilot, the AIRplane doesn’t move. Does the AIRline continue to operate without 135 vice presidents? Yes it does. Does the AIRline come to a screeching halt when 20% of the pilots stop doing everyone else’s jobs – let alone stop doing their own job? Yes it does. They coordinate and manage everything on the front lines. When they just do their job – and only their prescribed job function, everything else falls apart. They’re not providing bad customer service – they’re only doing exactly what they were hired to do per their job description – moving the planes from point A to point B safely.

    BTW @ Orlan, it takes 14 yrs to become a neurosurgeon. It takes at least that long to become a widebody captain at an airline. AA has copilots that have been flying for 20+ years at AA AFTER spending 5-10 years flying elsewhere.
    The doc doesn’t have to take a jeopardy physical every six months where one problem can result in losing his job. The doc doesn’t have to be tested every 9 months for proficiency where failure could result in losing his job. The doc only kills them one at a time. The doc didn’t have his throat slashed on 9/11 leaving a widow and children. The doc doesn’t have to worry that his operating table is going to be blown out of the sky by some terrorist. When was the last time a doc’s operating table ran out of gas?
    Yes, the pilots are worth every penny and more. But as I wrote earlier, you’ve been brainwashed by a lying and exaggerating management, so trying to convince you otherwise is an exercise in futility.

  28. To the 95% of AA employees who take pride in their jobs and care for their customers, thank you.

    To the 5% acting like petulant three year olds? You want to work for US? Quit and apply there. You want to be upset because you rejected a BAFO knowing the odds were 0% the judge would rule in your favor? Fine. You want to take it out on customers? Not fine, not professional, and not what your customers deserve. There are many eager Eagle pilots who would love to have your job, and I’d personally love to see you lose your license and be exposed to personal civil liability so I could look each one of you in the eye in various courtrooms around the country as you try to justify why “I got my feelings hurt” was an excuse to cause actual economic damages to others.

  29. To update my earlier post, my AA flight to Europe was indeed impacted as feared. With the 777 fully boarded and everyone seated about 10mins ahead of departure, things were looking good. Then, just as I expected the plane to push back the captain announced that they had “just discovered” three (!!) maintenance issues. Our flight was delayed for four hours.

    There was a stack of re-issued boarding passes awaiting our arrival. I’d guess 50-75. As mentioned previously, my connection was not ticketed through AA so I lost four hours of my life and $250 from my pocket to get to my destination. I’m sure others were out of pocket too.

    But hey, whatever it takes for AA pilots to get more money from a bankrupt airline in the worst economic crisis the country has suffered since the great depression.

    For reference, I’m a lifetime platinum, two-million miler on AA and every ounce of goodwill that AA pilots have earned in my years traveling AA has gone. Not for a four hour delay, or the one I expect on my return flight or the money this has cost me, but for the complete and utter lack of respect shown to their loyal customers that ultimately keep them employed. Their self-interested behavior is nothing short of malicious.

    First thing I’m doing when I get back is canceling the three international business class tickets I have booked on AA for early November and re-booking with United to ensure I’m not impacted by further AA pilot action. I’m sure I’m not the only one taking such action. How does that benefit *anyone* at AA? Fewer passengers = less cash = more pilot redundancies.

    BTW AA issued 5k miles as goodwill for the delay without prompt and they also sent an email apologizing for their pilots behavior.

    I never, ever thought I’d say this, but: Bravo AA. Shame on AA pilots.

  30. This is like watching an 18th century infantry battle being fought, with each side lining up and alternately firing volleys into the other’s ranks until all on the field have been killed or wounded.

    In this case, American will liquidate, and not only will the airline and pilots lose, so will all employees, retirees, stockholders, bondholders, creditors, the flying public (fewer options through less competition), individual cities served by one fewer airline, airports which have one fewer airline paying for gates, shippers (USPS, UPS, DHL) and mail order companies that pay to ship.

  31. Pilots have given back over $6 billion to management in the past 10 years. AMR squandered it. AMR entered bankruptcy with over $5 billion in cash. A record amount. This is a sham bankruptcy to destroy the employees. Management has stolen about $1 million dollars per pilot in deferred compensation. Cut pay. Increased medical costs. Took multimillion dollar bonuses for themselves in the past few years. Bankrupt-proofed their own retirement. Readily admitted that have not negotiated in good faith for the past six years after THEY opened bargaining early. They’ve lied. Cheated their employees. All analysts agree their Cornerstone Plan is DOA. It’s just a matter of time before AMR is in CH 11 again.

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