An American Airlines jet passes in front of the control tower at Philadelphia International Airport … [+] in January 2020. (Photo by John Greim)
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American Airlines indicated a summer schedule cutback was a one-time event, brought on by bad June weather and the rapid ramp up of summer travel. But the airline’s Philadelphia pilots say problems may continue through the end of the year because the carrier is not training pilots quickly enough.
In a letter this week to Philadelphia pilots, leaders of the Philadelphia chapter of the Allied Pilots Association said “Initial forward-looking data suggests that management has published and sold a schedule through December 2021 that it likely does not have the proper staffing to execute.”
American said it is working towards a return to normal operation.
“Pilot training remains on track and we remain focused on providing our pilots with the training they need as they return to the operation,” said spokeswoman Shannon Gilson in an e-mail. “Consistent with our original training plan, we expect all recalled pilots to complete training by the end of June.”
This month, American is operating about 5,800 daily flights, down about 10% from the 2019 level, but still more than competitors.
American said a week ago that it would cancel about 1% of its flight schedule through mid-July, a result of June weather problems that consumed crew hours as well as an ongoing labor shortage. Over the weekend of June 18–21, about 400 flights were cancelled, about half due to crew shortages.
American is operating and cancelling more flights than competitors, but its summer scheduling problems are not unique. Southwest said thunderstorms caused it to cancel 281 flights and delay 462 flights by midday Saturday. Southwest had scheduled 3,200 flights for Saturday.
In the letter, Philadelphia Chairman Paul Di Orio and Vice Chairman Kevin Wilkes wrote, “While the Boeing 737 is scheduled to fly 35% of the total block hours scheduled for July through December, “the 737-training program has a massive backlog.
“Many of the pilots required to fly those hours are simply not legal to fly,” the pilot leaders said. “This, of course, means even more pressure on those 737 pilots who are qualified.”
Additionally, the Philadelphia leaders’ letter says the airline’s published 2021 September through December schedule is 10% higher than the schedule for the same period in 2019 and 35% higher than the August schedule, even though the airline has about 4,500 fewer employees than it had in 2019.
The published schedule “reflects very little wide-body international flying with a resulting sharp increase in narrow-body flying to make up the difference,” says the letter. Yet it is possible that, as international covid restrictions are lifted, international widebody flying will increase, requiring even more flying to maintain the schedule.
The letter also noted that the Airbus fleet is scheduled to operate about half of the total block hours scheduled for July through December, with more than half the Airbus schedule flown by the A321. The A321 has lower pay rates than similarly sized aircraft, the pilots said.
The letter said that contract changes “can solve many of the inefficiencies and reduce or eliminate the 3,000% increase in cancellations due to lack of crew, but management is not listening.”
Meanwhile, American will begin to close its Charlotte pilot training base in the fourth quarter. The flight training center, with four simulators, will be moved to Dallas, impacting about 80 to 85 Airbus flight instructors and simulator technicians. American has 39 simulators — 30 mainline simulators and nine regional jet simulators.
Before the 2013 merger with American, Charlotte like Philadelphia was a hub for US Airways, which primarily operated Airbus jets. The Airbus training center has four A320 simulators, while the Dallas center has eight Airbus simulators.
“Centralizing our flight training into one location standardizes our training delivery, and ensures a consistent experience for all pilots, including those who may move between aircraft types,” said Vice President of Flight Chip Long in a May letter to pilots. “It puts our team in one place and ensures we can better collaborate and further raise the bar on flight training.”
The Philadelphia base has about 1,000 pilots, down about 500 pilots from two years ago as American has eliminated the Airbus A330 and Boeing 757 and 767 from its fleet.