American Airlines faces a lawsuit from its pilots union over what the latter claims are labor law violations that speak to the airline’s lack of preparedness for the upcoming peak summer travel season.
The issue turns on who accompanies a pilot on the final simulator evaluation before the pilot is cleared to work revenue flights. Typically, pilots and first officers are evaluated together, as a crew. But in some instances, when a first officer is unavailable, American staffs the second seat with a check pilot — a qualified training pilot. But now, the airline is seeking to fill a shortage of check pilots by asking line pilots to volunteer to staff evaluation sessions.
In a letter to its check pilots, American’s Head of Flight Operations Lyle Hogg said the carrier plans to hire up to 180 pilots per month through the end of this year. To help speed up the training pipeline, Hogg said line pilots can volunteer to serve as “seat fillers” during the final simulator evaluation to free up check pilots to conduct the evaluations.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents cockpit crew members at American, cried foul and filed a suit on April 14 in the federal district court for the Northern District of Texas. The union alleges the airline violated the Railway Labor Act by making a change without consulting the union.
“This unilateral action by American Airlines management degrades the training experience and risks long-term damage to the airline’s safety culture,” APA President Eric Ferguson said in announcing the suit.
The union claims that American has not hired check pilots fast enough to train new aviators, a claim the carrier refutes. The airline’s check pilot roster is bigger than it was a year ago, American said. But the union counters that the carrier downsized too far during the early days of the pandemic and is playing catch-up to staff the schedule it plans, and to train pilots to operate that schedule.
“If the airline’s training resources weren’t under severe duress, management wouldn’t have taken this unilateral, reckless, and unlawful action to fill these simulator sessions in a manner that is not contemplated by our collective bargaining agreement,” Ferguson said.
American shot back that safety is in no way is being compromised, and that the request for volunteers could be a career opportunity for line pilots. “This program is designed to give line pilots the opportunity to support the flight training simulator program, which is good for our pilots and provides even more training capacity to support continued growth,” a spokesperson for the airline said. “The pilots volunteering are highly qualified and experienced, and are responsible for the safety of our customers and fellow crew members every day.”
But the program may stall before it gets off the ground. In a sharply worded letter to its members, APA said it is “directing pilots not to volunteer for these special assignments,” adding: “Management’s effort to divide the pilot group by offering that work to ‘volunteer’ line pilots will not be tolerated, nor will it succeed.”
The larger issue is that the airline has planned a schedule that’s too ambitious for the roster it has. In a separate letter to pilots, Hogg said the carrier could see load factors this summer that are higher than in 2019. “Having failed to plan properly for the recovery in air travel demand, American Airlines management now finds itself having to deal with the consequences of being the only major airline to have furloughed pilots during the pandemic and its decision to forgo training opportunities at that time,” Ferguson responded.
American and APA have been locked in contract talks since 2019, when the union exercised its right to start negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement early. The contract became formally amendable in 2020.
American is not alone in this issue. Southwest Airlines earlier this year said it would slow pilot hiring due to a lack of qualified instructors. And other carriers, including many U.S. regionals, as well as Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways, face pilot and broader staffing shortages.
In addition to American and Southwest, pilots are in talks for new contracts at Alaska, Delta Air Lines, and JetBlue.