American Airlines accuses pilots of slowdown in contract dispute

A heated labor dispute between American Airlines and its pilots got uglier this week, possibly setting the stage for more flight delays and cancellations over the weekend.

American, whose parent company AMR Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection last year, got approval earlier this month from a Bankruptcy Court judge to throw out the pilots’ previous contract. The airline said it wanted to cut labor costs up to 20% companywide.

But contract negotiations with the pilots have not gone smoothly.

The airline has charged that, beginning last week, pilots have been calling in sick and submitting maintenance work orders in unusually high numbers, leading to thousands of flight delays and cancellations.

The Allied Pilots Assn., the union that represents American’s 10,000 pilots, said it had not called for an organized work slowdown. Instead, the group blames the problems on a shortage of maintenance workers and other changes resulting from cost cutting.

The two sides seemed ready to relaunch contract negotiations earlier this week until American fired off a letter to the union, urging the group to denounce slowdown tactics or face an injunction.

“We do not want to pursue this legal remedy; however, with the operation continuing to suffer for more than a week now, we must take appropriate steps to protect the company and the many constituents who depend upon it,” said the Sept. 26 letter from Denise Lynn, a senior vice president for the airline.

Pilots union spokesman Gregg Overman said the group was ready to schedule a meeting with the airline but the letter came “like a bucket of ice water on the process.”

For now, he said, the union had no plans to meet with the airline but the union leadership would meet Oct. 2 to discuss how to proceed. He said pilots were worried about possible cuts to pensions and an increase in healthcare costs and outsourcing, among other contract issues.

In the meantime, the union posted a message on its website urging pilots to stop any slowdown tactics.

On Thursday, the on-time arrival rate for the carrier’s flights was 53%, far below its historical rate of nearly 80%.

Overman said he didn’t know how the latest developments would affect flight delays and cancellations over the weekend.