AA Reacts to Pilot Retirements

The airline has canceled flights, reassigned managers and recalled laid-off workers.

American Airlines has canceled 52 domestic and long-haul international flights in February following the early retirement of 143 senior pilots, company executives said Friday.

American spokeswoman Tami McLallen said the carrier avoided additional cancellations by moving 250 management-level flight instructors and check airmen into American cockpits.

"Obviously, it's a large number of retirements," McLallen said. "But we're doing a number of things to deal with it . . . including pulling (pilots) from 250 members of management who are line-qualified pilots."

American also has recalled 660 pilots who were among 2,100 pilots laid off after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Among the flight cancellations are Flight 90, outbound and returning flights between Chicago O'Hare International Airport and London's Heathrow Airport on Friday, Feb. 9, Feb. 17 and Feb. 27; Flight 289 outbound and returning from Chicago O'Hare to Beijing, China, on Tuesday, Feb. 14 and Feb. 25; Flight 142 outbound and returning from JFK International Airport in New York to Narita, Japan, on Wednesday, Feb. 12, Feb. 18 and Feb. 24, and Flight 175 outbound and returning from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Narita on Tuesday, Feb. 17 and Feb. 22.

The pilots are members of the 12,000-member Allied Pilots Association, which alleges the flight cancellations are the result of over-aggressive cost cutting by management.

American has more than 9,000 active pilots, company and union officials said.

APA spokesman Greg Overman said the canceled flights announced by American could have been avoided.

"The available solution is to call back the furloughed pilots," Overman said. "There's no question they are going to have difficulties because of the tight manning situation.

"Every retirement for the next five years is going to be an early retirement. We are in uncharted territory, but there's no slack so I would expect this (flight cancellations) to keep happening."

Early retirement is appealing to senior pilots because of provisions in their retirement plans and the downturn in the stock market, APA spokesmen said.

Pilots nearing retirement age at American are able to lock in the value of a portion of their retirement benefits for a 90-day period. Dozens of American pilots took that option on Oct. 31.

Due to the decline of the stock market and its impact on pilot retirement funds, a higher-than-projected number of pilots said they would retire as of Feb. 1.

APA officials said American management should have planned for contingencies such as early retirement.

By running the airline with so few pilot reserves, American runs the risk of flight cancellations not only with pilot retirements but other unforeseen developments, APA officials said.

In 2007, American canceled 21,624 flights, or 2.7 percent of its scheduled flights — more than any major network carrier, according to preliminary statistics compiled by the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics and Flightstats.com, a Web site operated by Conducive Technology Corp. of Portland, Ore.

United Airlines last year had the second-worst canceled flight ratio in the airline industry with 2.28 percent cancellations.

Louis Smith, a former 30-year pilot with Northwest Airlines and president of FLTops.com, an online jobs registry and resource for pilots, said some furloughed pilots may not return to the airline industry.

"It's possible 25 percent may not come back if recalled," Smith said in a telephone interview. "They could be working for another carrier and don't want to come back at the bottom of the seniority list.

"The pay, benefits and job security have declined considerably. The pay is about half as far as purchasing power before 2001."

Smith said the cargo airlines such as Federal Express used to be considered "default careers" by airline pilots.

"After 9/11, pilots went to Fed Ex for better pay and job security," Smith said. "Boxes aren't afraid to fly."