What’s going on with all of those cancellations at American Airlines

Jun 22, 2021

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It was a rough weekend for American Airlines, and things look like they’re going to get even worse.

The airline cancelled 123 flights on Saturday and another 178 on Sunday, with another 146 coming on Monday as of 4:30 p.m. ET on Monday, according to data from FlightAware.

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The cancellations appeared to be mostly on Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 type narrowbody aircraft, the workhorses of American’s domestic and short-haul international fleet.

According to the airline, these cancellations won’t be the last: American will pull 50 to 60 flights from its schedule per day through the rest of June, and 50 to 80 per day through July — roughly 1% of its schedule.

The airline cited “unprecedented” severe weather in its hub cities as contributing to the problem. As weather delays pile on in one hub, they can create a ripple effect, leading to compounding delays across an airline’s entire system.

American also pointed to a labour shortage.

Internal schedule notes shared with TPG show “flight crew unavailable” listed as a reason for many of the cancellations, with “operational decision” listed on others.

American furloughed about 19,000 employees in late-2020 as Payroll Support Program (PSP) funding expired, including almost 8,000 flight attendants and more than 1,200 pilots. Another 1,000 pilots took early retirement offers, according to Capt. Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesperson for the airline’s pilots’ union, and more took three, six, and twelve-month long voluntary leaves of absence.

Although furloughed workers were recalled in late-December, when PSP funding was restored, reduced flight schedules meant that not all of them were able to begin flying or completing training requirements right away.

Now, American is working to catch up on getting pilots and flight attendants to meet recurrent training requirements. According to Tajer, all of American’s pilots expect to be fully up-to-date by the end of the summer.

Complicating the training backlog: pilots who were switched from one aircraft type to another, after American retired about 110 aircraft, Tajer said. Those pilots also need to go through training to be certified on their new aircraft types.

The training backlog comes as American — and other carriers — race to take advantage of a big surge in demand as America continues to reopen amid high vaccination rates. However, those airlines must balance demand with limited staffing.

“We’re glad that American wanted to be the No. 1 airline, but did they plan for it? There’s clearly a pilot shortage,” Tajer said, referring to American scheduling more regional flights in July than any of its competitors.

While the limited number of pilots and flight attendants available could have managed the number of flights scheduled, recent days have brought the scourge of even the best laid airline plans: weather.

American said that severe weather in its hub cities on nine of the first 15 days of June led to a cascading series of backups and cancellations that have rippled through its network.

“The first few weeks of June have brought unprecedented weather to our largest hubs, heavily impacting our operation and causing delays, cancelled flights and disruptions to crew member schedules and our customers’ plans,” an American Airlines spokesperson said in a statement. “That, combined with the labour shortages some of our vendors are contending with and the incredibly quick ramp up of customer demand, has led us to build in additional resilience and certainty to our operation by adjusting a fraction of our scheduled flying through mid-July.”

“We made targeted changes with the goal of impacting the fewest number of customers by adjusting flights in markets where we have multiple options for re-accommodation,” the spokesperson added.

While weather is unavoidable, Tajer called on American to offer more last-minute flexibility to pilots when building their monthly schedules, so that pilots can swap trips with each other, making them eligible to pick up more overtime.

“We’d take all the available overtime,” Tajer said. “But they have to make it possible for us to do it. And advertise it early, when they know they’re going to be tight on a day.”

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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