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American Airlines' Snafu Gives Too Many Pilots Off In December


All right. American Airlines made a mistake at the wrong time. The airline accidentally gave too many pilots time off. So as it's preparing for the holiday rush, the airline is scrambling to staff thousands of upcoming flights. As NPR's David Schaper reports, though, American is saying it doesn't expect too many cancellations.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Flying a plane is no 9 to 5 job, and every commercial airline pilot knows they'll be working their fair share of red eyes, weekends and holidays. So many American Airlines pilots were pleasantly surprised last week to find that requests to drop trips over the holidays were granted.

DENNIS TAJER: So they went to their sons, daughters, husbands and wives and said, hey, guess what? I'm off for Christmas. First time in 10 years.

SCHAPER: Captain Dennis Tajer, who serves as spokesman for American's pilots union says it was indeed too good to be true. A glitch in the scheduling system, not caused by computers, gave more pilots time off over the holidays than it should have. So more than 15,000 flights from December 17 through December 31 have no assigned pilot, co-pilot, or both.

TAJER: Just like a major snowstorm. This is a manmade one. When that happens, it creates mayhem for our passengers and it creates mayhem for the pilots because they are reassigned and then they're out on the road for an extra three or four days.

SCHAPER: And Tajer says many pilots are already scheduled for lots of flights earlier in December.

TAJER: There are maximums to how much a pilot can fly. So you pull on one string and a whole lot of other strings come undone in the tapestry of flight operations.

SCHAPER: American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller acknowledges the scheduling problem but won't say how many flights are affected. He says the airline is working to fill those open cockpit seats.

MATT MILLER: We have reserved pilots on tap to help cover flying in December, and we're also paying pilots who pick up certain open trips a premium time and a half.

SCHAPER: But while Miller says American Airlines doesn't expect to cancel flights, that may be easier said than done. Transportation expert Joe Schwieterman of Chicago's DePaul University says the timing couldn't be worse.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: You look at the holiday season, and we're expecting record loads. And so you throw this kind of problem into the mix and, no doubt, travelers get nervous because many dread the crowds already without, you know, that lingering uncertainty.

SCHAPER: But Schwieterman expects the airline and its pilots union to work out their differences over holiday scheduling.

SCHWIETERMAN: They have a couple weeks to figure this out, and I wouldn't adjust any travel plans right now.

SCHAPER: With so much at stake, Schwieterman says, American Airlines is sure to open up its wallet in an attempt to lure more pilots back into the cockpit. They'll be trying to assure that their customers won't be scrambling to find seats for their holiday travels on competing airlines. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.