Many American Airlines crews and frequent travelers have poor memories of the summer of 2019. The carrier faced operational issues that left a bad taste in pretty much everyone’s mouth so much so that management publicly acknowledged the issues and promised that American would do better in the future.
Fast forward two years and, it appears, American could face a repeat of its 2019 challenges. Cancellations spiked over the weekend — roughly 150 on June 19 and 188 on June 20, at least five-times that of other major U.S. carriers on the same days — due to what a spokesperson for the airline said was a combination of weather and staffing issues. As a result, American will shave roughly 1 percent from its daily operation — or up to about 30 flights a day — through July that will allow it to “build in additional resilience” into its schedule.
This is just the latest example of how labor shortages across travel are pinching operations as travel demand is the highest it’s been since the pandemic began.
American is scheduled to fly nearly 97 percent of its 2019 domestic capacity in June, according to Cirium data. In July, that number rises to nearly 98 percent of what it was two years ago.
Delta Air Lines has faced similar issues as it ramped up schedules this spring. The most recent incident was in April when widespread cancellations forced it to unblock middle seats to accommodate affected travelers. The Atlanta-based carrier has faced a training backlog as pilots move around to different aircraft types following its decision to retire its Boeing 777 and McDonnell Douglas MD-88 families.
There have been multiple warning signs that American’s summer plans could be overambitious. In March, Allied Pilots Association (APA) spokesperson Dennis Tajer said that a backlog in pilot training could hamper plans to reactivate its 855 mainline aircraft by June. The backlog stemmed primarily from the need to re-certify pilots who were furloughed in October 2020 and recalled that December, as well as retraining for crews who flew one of the four aircraft types American retired last year.
And in April, American’s Vice President of Flight Captain Chip Long told staff in an internal communiqué that it would take the airline until the “end of the summer” to reinstate all of its furloughed pilots to active status. The carrier furloughed more than 1,200 pilots last October. Long’s comments came even as American publicly said it would resume flying its full fleet by June.
Fast forward to today, and Tajer cited some historic issues that in the union’s view make it more difficult for American to staff flights. These include lower incentive pay compared to competitors and a scheduling system that can make it difficult for pilots to swap trips for one that offers said pay. This has American resorting to a disliked tactic that it used in 2019: re-assigning pilots to new flights mid trip and then leaving their previous itinerary in need of a new crew.
“They keep reassigning us mid trip — robbing Peter to pay Paul,” one American pilot who is not authorized to speak publicly told Airline Weekly. “Everyone’s talking about it happening to them. Just like summer of 2019 all over again.”
An American spokesperson was not immediately available to comment on incentive pay, its scheduling system or mid-trip reassignments.
American’s relations with its pilots have long been testy dating back to at least its merger with US Airways in 2013. Add to that the fact that the contract between them has been amendable since January 2020 leaving many pilots eager for a new agreement.
The staffing and weather challenges come as U.S. flights are at their fullest since the pandemic began. Domestic passenger numbers were down just 22 percent compared to 2019 during the week ending June 15, the latest data from trade group Airlines 4 America show. And the average percentage of seats filled on U.S. flights was 83.3 percent — just six points shy of where it was two years ago.