Pilots' union says American Airlines seeks to resume negotiations on a new contract

Associated Press

DALLAS - There could be progress in breaking the standoff between American Airlines and its pilots, which appears to have caused a spike in cancelled and delayed flights.

American formally asked the pilots' union to resume negotiations on a new labour contract. A spokesman said the union board will meet Wednesday to decide on the next step.

Pilots and management at American have been bickering for years, but the conflict came to a head this month when a federal bankruptcy judge allowed the airline to break its contract with pilots. American set new pay and work rules that could lead to outsourcing more flying to other airlines.

Almost immediately, delays and cancellations rose sharply at American, the nation's third-biggest airline. American cancelled more than 300 flights last week, and the new week began no better.

On Monday, American cancelled 113 flights, or 6.1 per cent of its total. Other than its regional-flying affiliate, American Eagle, which had 13 cancellations, no other airline had more than eight, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats.com.

American operated more than 1,800 flights Monday, and just 51.1 per cent arrived on time, by far the worst record among the nation's five biggest airlines. On-time arrivals by Delta and US Airways topped 93 per cent, while United and Southwest were 88 per cent, according to FlightStats.

American and parent AMR Corp. sought Chapter 11 protection in November. Travelers have grown accustomed to flying on airlines that are under bankruptcy protection — United, Delta and US Airways all went through Chapter 11 last decade and they survived — but passengers might not put up with unreliable service. Experts including American's former chief, Robert Crandall, believe that passengers will "book away" and skip American.

AMR declined to comment on booking trends. But after a weeklong barrage of bad publicity, it released new information to bolster its argument that it is the victim of a work slowdown by pilots.

American said that since March, the percentage of pilots calling in sick has been between 19.7 per cent and 32.9 per cent higher than in the same month last year.

And so far in September, the number of delays caused by pilots asking for precautionary maintenance checks is already nearly double the number in all of September 2011. The reports spiked in mid-August, when pilots rejected American's last contract offer, and again starting in early September, after the bankruptcy judge ruled against the union.

"These are very often unspecific kinds of things, and maintenance determines there is nothing to do," said Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for American. "Sometimes the pilot does his walk-around (before flight) and says, 'The tires look low,' or 'Is that oil or water on the wing?'"

Pilots' union spokesman Tom Hoban said pilots are required to log all maintenance issues, including those reported by flight attendants or even passengers. And pilots might be acting cautiously, he said, because American "has gone punitive on us" by throwing out the union's contract and even writing up individual pilots.

"It's like driving down the highway and seeing a state trooper," Hoban said. "You're going to slow down to the speed limit, use your turn signals; you're going to cross your T's and dot your I's."

American has added mechanics in some places, brought on more customer-service staff, and offered to rebook or refund tickets for passengers whose flights are cancelled or delayed.

And on Monday, AMR senior vice-president Denise Lynn wrote to the pilots' union asking to resume contract negotiations. The union's board will meet Wednesday to consider its next step.

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