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Too many flights, not enough pilots

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Kai Ryssdal: Good to have you here. Today’s Tuesday, the 24th of July. And in all honesty it’s tough to figure out where to start. Maybe yesterday after the closing bell would be a good place. And an earnings report from Texas Instruments. It’s the world’s biggest maker of computer chips for cell phones. TI said yesterday the outlook for the coming quarter is grim at best.

Then this morning it was Dupont, where profits didn’t live up to expectations. I could go on with a whole roster of others. Though there were some bright spots. Defense stocks and drugmakers. And airlines. United and Jet Blue led the way with higher profits.

But you could fairly say airlines are becoming victims of their recent success. A lot of people are coping with canceled flights this summer because of something the Federal Aviation Administration calls overscheduling. The airlines blame an overstretched air traffic control system. But that may not explain a spike in cancellations at Northwest, due in large part to not having enough people to fly the planes.

From Minnesota Public Radio, Martin Moylan reports.

Martin Moylan: On a typical day, an airline may cancel 1 or 2 percent of its flights. But on Sunday, Northwest says it cancelled about 4 percent, or around 75 flights. On Monday, it scrubbed about 60. Today, Northwest says cancellations are back to normal, with about 2 percent of flights going nowhere.

Northwest blames the recent uptick in cancellations on mechanical problems, bad weather, air traffic control snarl-ups, and what it calls “crew-related issues.” Late last month, Northwest recalled about 400 laid-off pilots. But it takes time to get pilots retrained.

Pilot union spokesman Monty Montgomery says the airline still isn’t prepared to fly all its scheduled flights.

Monty Montgomery: That is due to pilot staffing. We are insufficiently staffed to fly the schedule as posted.

The pilots’ contract calls for them to fly up to 90 hours a month. They could fly more under federal rules. But the union says few do because they’re too worn out. Travel expert Terry Trippler blames Northwest for the jump in cancellations.

Terry Trippler: When a pilot says he or she is too fatigued to fly, end of story. So, if they say they’re too fatigued fly, if they have hit their 90 hours, who’s to blame? Obviously management.

Northwest would not offer a forecast for flight cancellations for the rest of the month. But the pilots’ union expects they could be above normal.

In St. Paul, I’m Martin Moylan for Marketplace.

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