Fort Worth-based American Airlines is scrambling to find pilots to operate thousands of flights over the upcoming holiday season after a glitch hit the company's scheduling system.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents about 15,000 American Airlines pilots, says they were notified by airline management of "significant holes" in the schedule due to a failure with the pilot schedule bidding system.
A spokesman for the airline told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they expect to avoid canceling flights by paying overtime and using reserve pilots.
American isn't saying how many flights are affected, but the pilots' union says that about 15,000 flights were scheduled without a captain, a co-pilot or both.
Captain Dennis Tajer, APA communications committee chairman, said those flights fall into the "critical travel period," which he defined as Dec. 17 through Dec. 31. American hasn't confirmed the dates impacted.
A computer glitch last Friday allowed pilots to drop flights they were assigned to fly next month, without having someone to cover for them.
"It was their normal process," said Tajer, who moved off a flight schedule that would have kept him flying over Christmas.
"I just thought, 'Oh, lucky day for me,'" Tajer said. "I've not been home for Christmas for many years, so this is wonderful. And then I come to learn that it was more of a computer glitch."
The world's biggest airline, American has about 15,000 active pilots and expects 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 vacation over Christmas, for example — even when there were no other pilots available for that flight. Normally the system would deny conflicting vacation requests, especially during busy travel periods.
The pilots' union estimated that when the problem was discovered late last week, about 19,000 cockpit seats were left empty.
"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 or on-call pilots and offering overtime pay for some of the unstaffed flights. The union says American is violating its labor contract by imposing a solution without union input, and is improperly restricting premium pay.
The APA said the airline "invoked a solution for crewing affected flights" but that the solution put in place was in violation of the pilots' contracts with the airline and that the promised payment of the premium being offered could not be guaranteed.
The airline addressed dozens of questions from nervous travelers on Twitter Wednesday, saying they "want to keep families flying this holiday season and fully expect to avoid cancellations."
Airline spokesman Matt Miller said the company "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 expects to pay out in overtime because of the glitch.
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 $2 after news of the glitch, although they still closed up 3 cents at $49.25. Rivals fared much better — Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue all rose at least 3 percent.
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