American Airlines is gearing up for what could be a busy summer travel season in the U.S. by getting many of its jets that remain in storage ready to fly again by June.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier aims to “reactivate most” of its 855 mainline aircraft — plus many of its 544 regional aircraft — in the second quarter, American said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Monday. The move comes as net bookings hover within 90 percent of 2019 levels, and load factors stand at roughly 80 percent on capacity that is still down 40-45 percent compared with two years ago.
American’s latest outlook is positive news for an airline industry hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. After hemorrhaging cash for more than a year, several airlines expect to break even with the help of government payroll assistance this month. And U.S. airport screenings have held steady above one million people a day for over two weeks, surpassing 1.5 million on Sunday, the latest Transportation Security Administration data shows.
So good news for American, right?
Maybe not if you ask the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents pilots at the airline. American faces a lengthy training backlog as a result of both furloughed pilots and those who took voluntary leaves coming back, retraining crews from the four aircraft types that were retired during the crisis, and regular refresher training for active pilots, said APA spokesperson Dennis Tajer.
“They’re going to have the metal out there, they’re going to have the passengers out there, but will they have the pilots to fly them?” he said.
Executives at American have previously acknowledged a crew training logjam. During a recorded message on March 21 shared with Airline Weekly, the airline’s Vice President of Flight Operations Captain Chip Long told pilots that a confluence of factors had created “just a bit of a backlog” training crews. American can train roughly 280 pilots a month, he added.
American spokesperson Matt Miller declined to comment on whether pilot staffing could delay the return of the airline’s fleet. However, he noted that there is some flexibility in how many aircraft are back in service by the end of June without providing specifics.
There is a certain irony to the fact that, after pruning its workforce and furloughing staff during the crisis, American could now find itself hamstrung by a training backlog. But that, in a nutshell, is the argument unions made for the $54 billion in payroll relief the industry has received from the federal government: Once staff leave an airline, whether on furlough or voluntarily, retraining and certifying them to fly again takes time. And that process can slow an airlines’ ability to resume flights when travel demand recovers quickly.
Delta Air Lines faced a similar challenge last fall. The Atlanta-based carrier was forced to cancel several hundred flights over the busy Thanksgiving travel period and even temporarily to park some of its efficient Airbus A220 jets amid a crew training backlog.
American has not disclosed what planes will return to service versus which ones will remain parked this summer. However, with international travel still contrained by Covid border restrictions, a likely scenario is the airline returns its narrowbody fleet first before bringing back all of its widebody jets, which primarily operate long-haul international flights.
At the end of 2020, American had 112 widebody Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft, and 743 narrowbody jets. The airline permanently retired 95 mainline aircraft, including all of its Airbus A330s and Boeing 767s, as a result of the crisis.