Glitch has airline looking for pilots for holiday flights

A SCHEDULING glitch has left the world’s largest airline scrambling to save Christmas, as it tries to find pilots to operate thousands of flights over the busy holiday period.

After the bungle allowed too many pilots to take time off in December, a spokesman for American Airlines said on Wednesday the airline hopes to save the situation by paying overtime and using reserve or on-call pilots.

The airline isn’t saying how many flights are affected, but the pilots’ union says about 15,000 flights were scheduled without a captain, a co-pilot or both.

American Airlines, the world’s biggest airline, has about 15,000 active pilots and is meant to operate more than 200,000 flights in December.

Pilots bid each month for flying assignments based on seniority. The scheduling glitch let pilots drop scheduled flights — to take a holiday over Christmas, for example — even when there were no other pilots available for that flight.

Normally such a request would be denied, especially during busy travel periods.

Some 15,000 flights scheduled between December 17 and 31 are without pilots after a scheduling system hiccup allowed too many pilots to take time off. Picture: AFP/Daniel Slim

Some 15,000 flights scheduled between December 17 and 31 are without pilots after a scheduling system hiccup allowed too many pilots to take time off. Picture: AFP/Daniel SlimSource:AFP

The pilots’ union estimated that when the problem was discovered late last week, about 19,000 cockpit seats were left empty. The glitch affected flights between December 17 and December 31 from nearly a dozen airports including hubs in Dallas, Chicago and Miami.

“This is a potential crisis that we see well in advance,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the union. “This is very unusual.”

The union has lodged a protest against the company’s plan to fix the mistake by tapping reserve pilots and offering overtime pay for some of the unstaffed flights.

The union says American is violating its labour contract by imposing a solution without union input, and is improperly restricting premium pay. Some nervous customers tweeted at the airline, looking for reassurance that their Christmas travel plans would not be upset.

American officials “expect to avoid cancellations this holiday season,” said airline spokesman Matt Miller.

“We will work with the (union) to take care of our pilots and ensure we get our customers to where they need to go over the holidays.”

Miller declined to say how much American Airlines expects to pay out in overtime because of the bungle.

Despite American’s can-do response, scheduling mix-ups can create serious problems in the airline business. In September, Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair said it would cancel more 20,000 flights between November and March after admitting it “messed up” the transition to a new system for scheduling employee vacations.

Shares of American Airlines Group Inc lost nearly US$2 after news of the glitch, although they still closed up 3 cents at US$49.25.

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