American Airlines threatens to sue pilots' union

American Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at the Miami International Airport on September 25, 2012 in Miami, Fla.

American Airlines is threatening to take its pilots’ union to court. It’s accusing the pilots of disrupting flights with sickouts, and by calling for unnecessary maintenance that delays flights.

American is in bankruptcy protection, trying to restructure. It’s trying to impose new pay and work rules on its pilots -- and they’re not happy. Their union hasn’t called for any official action, but American says pilots are filing more maintenance complaints and flying circuitous routes.

Seth Kaplan is managing partner at Airline Weekly magazine. He thinks all the delays aren’t just coincidence. “You don’t suddenly have far more people getting sick at the same time, far more mechanical issues," he says. "Something organized is going on.”

The union says it’s not fair that American is using bankruptcy protection to impose pay cuts, and that the problems are due to old planes and a pilot shortage. But American says the percentage of pilots calling in sick has increased at least 20 percent a month. 

Airline analyst Richard Aboulafia says part of the problem is it took so long for American to file for bankruptcy protection.  Now its competitors have reorganized and merged, and American is still struggling.

“What American is doing now is basically playing catch up," Aboulafia says, "and trying to get its costs in line with its competitors before it loses even more market share.”

That’s a real possibility. American has had many more cancelled and late flights than its competitors, and its passengers aren’t happy.


About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.
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“If the employees come first, then they're happy, ... A motivated employee treats the customer well. The customer is happy so they keep coming back, which pleases the shareholders. It's not one of the enduring Green mysteries of all time, it is just the way it works.”
Herb Kelleher quotes (Famous Founder of Southwest Airlines)

Not surprised this is happening. Earlier this week a pilot with 30 years at AA called into Dave Ramsey's radio show asking about how to best handle one of his THREE retirement plans. The one in question was valued at about $1 million and he wanted to know what best to do with the proceeds, which he admitted was mostly funded by AA. With these kinds of plans at issue, I can see why the pilots are upset. I'd want to keep that gravy train (er, plane) coming too. But we're in a new business model/cycle and even the pilots are going to have to give.

Are we really against pilots now? Granted the job has gotten easier, but it still entails quite a bit of stress, long hours, and nights away from home. Additionally, one person calling in to a radio program is hardly a statistic, more like a single point of data. I'm not sure where your rage against pilot pay is coming from. According to the Wall Street Journal, new pilots at major airlines earn somewhere around $21,600 a year, it hardly seems like they are living high on the hog. A senior pilot can earn upwards of $200,000 [1]. Which is, to be fair, a pretty good salary but I imagine by that point they've earned it.

Finally it can cost as much as $150,000 for the students of private flight schools. If I had that much in student debt, I'd be mad about a 30% decrease in salary as well [2].


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