A number of American Airlines’ hiring decisions have created a major bottleneck in training and recertification after pilots are returned to work. This could mean persistent cancellations and delays for passengers. Jenny Kane / AP hide caption
Jenny Kane / AP
Jenny Kane / AP
Just as hundreds of thousands of Americans are returning to the skies this summer, so are many of the old inconveniences and difficulties of commercial air travel. And experts say travelers should expect persistent problems during the busy summer season.
Long lines at security checkpoints, disruptive passengers, and long flight delays and cancellations greet many air travelers who may not have boarded a plane for 15 months or more due to the pandemic.
American Airlines passengers have had a particularly tough time as the airline has canceled hundreds of flights in the past few days due to staff shortages and an airline statement cites “unprecedented weather”.
The airline canceled more than 120 flights on Saturday, 188 on Sunday and at least 162 flights on Monday, reports Flight Aware. In addition, there were 760 American flights on Sunday and nearly 800 flights on Monday, according to the flight tracking website.
Weather and staff caused problems
In a statement, American named “unprecedented weather” as one of the causes of the company’s recent troubles.
In fact, in the past few days, violent thunderstorms hit some of the country’s largest airports, including Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago-O’Hare, Hartsfield in Atlanta, and Washington-Dulles.
The airline also states that it has canceled flights early to minimize surprises for passengers at the airport, and says its cancellations are mostly made in markets where there are multiple options for passengers to rebook onto other flights.
American Airlines will proactively cancel around 1% of its scheduled flights per day by mid-July. That is around 50 to 80 of the airline’s daily departures, says an American spokeswoman.
But Captain Dennis Tajer, a 737 pilot for American Airlines and a spokesman for the airline’s pilots union, tells NPR that the problem stems from the company’s aggressive plan to cancel flight schedules despite a severe shortage of pilots due to strategic actions during the pandemic.
A series of security checkpoints in Denver last week reflects interest in air travel following the pandemic. David Zalubowski / AP hide caption
David Zalubowski / AP
David Zalubowski / AP
Early retirement offers and leave of absence caused a shortage
To save money as the global travel slowdown slowed, Tajer said American had offered a buy-out package to pilots who were about to retire. “About 1,000 pilots took advantage of that,” he estimates.
“The thing is, now you have to train a new pilot into this seat. Just because a captain of a 737 walks out the door, the plane is still there and you have to find a replacement, ”says the pilot.
He notes that while this might have been a good cost-saving measure at the time, it only exacerbated American’s larger problem: it cannot train and recertify pilots quickly enough to meet demand.
Despite $ 50 billion in bailouts used to prop the aviation industry through the downturn and ensure they are ready when customers return, American is with its commitment to keeping its pilots certified and updated, fallen behind, says Tajer.
“Instead, American was the only major network that put pilots on leave,” he recalls.
Around 1,600 pilots were given leave of absence for several months. “That means they haven’t been flying regularly or training on simulators all the time to get the flight certification they need to be.”
In a statement, American spokeswoman Gianna Urgo told NPR that “all pilots previously on leave were recalled in December 2020 in accordance with the payroll support program extension and began returning to training and work as operational needs”.
Dispute over a training and certification bottleneck
Urgo said “pilot training remains on track” and the company is on schedule to “complete” all recalled pilots by the end of June.
Tajer says this is overly optimistic, claiming that a bottleneck in the training and recertification pipeline due to an instructor shortage, as well as limited access to the types of flight simulators needed, have slowed things down. In many cases, he says, “it can take up to two months” to regain flight status.
An April 20 email received by NPR from American officials to employees predicted that all recalled pilots would return to flight status “by the end of summer”.
At best, it means potential frustration for anyone with summer travel plans, according to Tajer, while at worst, it could be “a total disaster for some people”.
He noted a recent internal message to staff promoting the airline’s new destinations under the heading “A Great American Summer”.
That could be, he says. “Or is it going to be big American crap?”