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American Airlines’ Bumpy Ride: Loose Seats, Smoky Cabins and Labor Disputes

October 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Amid long-running contract struggles with its 7,500 active pilots, American Airlines, the third largest passenger airline, has delayed or cancelled hundreds of flights in the last few weeks. Gwen Ifill talks to USA Today's Ben Mutzabaugh for more on the company's bankruptcy woes, toxic labor relations and maintenance concerns.
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GWEN IFILL: The week’s not even halfway over and it’s been an ugly one for American Airlines, as it faces growing questions about its flights, its labor problems and its very future. 

These are turbulent times for the nation’s third-largest passenger airline.  In just the last few weeks, American Airlines has delayed or canceled hundreds of flights.  American accused pilots of conducting an illegal work slowdown.  The pilots union denied it.  But on top of that, three flights were grounded after rows of seats came loose. 

That’s a tiny fraction of American’s daily schedule, but the problem grabbed national attention.  One passenger, who didn’t want to be identified, described an incident on a flight from Boston to Miami. 

WOMAN: The seats flipped backwards.  And so people were essentially on the laps of the passenger behind them with their legs up in the air. 

GWEN IFILL: American blamed improperly installed clamps and promised new inspections. 

All of this comes amid a long-running contract struggle with the airline’s 7,500 active pilots.  There’s been no strike, but the pilots have conducted informational picketing, calling for new management. 

CAPT. JOHN DIACSUK, American Airlines: We’re here as professionals because we want the airline to succeed.  The bottom line is if management isn’t making the right decisions, the airline can’t succeed. 

GWEN IFILL: American’s parent company, AMR Corporation, declared bankruptcy last November.  Since then, AMR has sought hundreds of millions of dollars in labor cost savings.  Flight attendants, mechanics and baggage handlers have agreed to cost-cutting measures. 

The pilots union has held out, rejecting American’s last offer in August.  Yesterday, the two sides agreed to resume talks. 

For more on what’s going on at American Airlines, we turn to Ben Mutzabaugh of USA Today.  He’s author of the paper’s Today in the Sky blog. 

Ben, it feels like it’s a perfect storm in a way for American Airlines, with all of these things happening at one time. 

BEN MUTZABAUGH, USA Today: Boy, it really is. 

This loose seat incident has become really ugly for American, and that’s just the kind of scrutiny they’re under right now.  You have had this issue with the pilots, and the maintenance issues, the delayed flights and the cancellations. 

With that in the news so heavily, when you have an incident like this that doesn’t appear to be related, people can’t help but ask, hey, is this related?  If you’re an average customer on the street and you have heard American in the news for these reasons, it draws obvious parallels, even though there might not be — this is a case where there’s smoke and there may not be fire, but cumulatively it’s a mess for American. 

GWEN IFILL: I was on American flight this weekend.  I have that question.  Is it related? 

BEN MUTZABAUGH: You know, the only thing that you could really think right now is, could it be sabotage?  And that would be the worst-case scenario.  And certainly without any evidence to suggest that, I don’t think anybody should think that without concrete evidence that it is. 

Instead, this is more of a maintenance issue.  And I don’t even — there’s no reason at this point to think that it is related to the ongoing labor problems at American, but it sure puts those problems in the spotlight. 

GWEN IFILL: So, let’s just talk about the ongoing labor problem separately then.  Are we seeing an organized sick-out?  Or are we saw just set — we saw the informational picketing.  Is this an informal strike under way? 

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, how do you — that…

GWEN IFILL: How do you know?

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Right, how do you know?

I do believe that the union is not — they’re not endorsing it, they’re not promoting it.  But they are acknowledging that a lot of pilots are not just angry, but furious at management.  And I think we can all see that.  So, at what point does it tip from, say, 30, 40, 50 percent of pilots just taking these one-off actions?  When it does it tip from that to becoming an organized action?

I do think if American took it to court, the court would be sympathetic, but, again, that would be a road that probably neither side really wants to go down.  The union has come out and made a more definitive statement asking pilots to comply, and things seem to be getting a little bit better this week, at least as far as the delays and cancellations go. 

GWEN IFILL: What is the source of the bad feelings between the pilots and management that doesn’t seem to exist with other unions?  

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, this is decades in the making.

And even by the airline industry standards for labor-management distrust, the situation at American is probably as toxic as anything as we have seen in 20 years.  So, this goes back to concessions from the early 2000s, during the 2000s.  And there was a brief period, brief glimmer of hope for American, but it really came to a head last year when management took bonuses that, even though the union had agreed to the contract, they were higher than expected because of some of the details in the contract. 

And it just didn’t sit well with pilots, with any of the unions at American.  And it just really kind of set the scene for what we’re seeing now.  No one is crying uncle. 

GWEN IFILL: At the same time, we see on-time performance, which really does affect people who fly every day, going down. 

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Right.

And what we’re seeing here is apparently a lot of pilots just calling in with these maintenance issues, having things checked out, and it’s going by the letter of the law on these maintenance reports.  Things that could be fixed later, they are maybe asking to get fixed now, or at least that’s what American is saying. 

And, yes, these delays really did start to spike right after American used bankruptcy court to throw out the collective bargaining agreement. 

GWEN IFILL: And it builds into the continuing confidence deficit.

What is the status of American’s bankruptcy right now? 

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Well, they’re reorganizing. 

And what a lot of people really think is going on, they think the hand that the pilots are playing is they don’t need to get a whole lot of people on the creditors committee in the bankruptcy process for American to say, you know what?  Management has had its shot.  This is not working, because these people on the creditors committee, they obviously have a very vested interest in how this goes forward. 

And if they think that American’s current management can’t do it — and this is where U.S. Airways comes into the picture — it may not take much more of this to go on before other people on the creditors committee start to switch and the vote comes in favor of, hey, we’re bringing in U.S. Airways, we’re going to merge, which is what the pilots and all the unions at Americans want right now. 

GWEN IFILL: If you’re a regular flyer, a frequent flyer on American, should you be worried at all about underlying safety issues?  Is there a bigger problem underneath all of this? 

BEN MUTZABAUGH: There’s nothing that I have seen that leads me to believe that flying on American is unsafe. 

However, I do think that it is possibly unreliable, schedule-wise, right now.  But I don’t think that there’s anything that I have seen that leads me to believe that if you’re flying a flight on American Airlines that you are at any risk. 

GWEN IFILL: But if you decide that you need to get there, as opposed to — you’re not worried about your safety as much as you’re worried about your connection or whether it’s possible to have the vacation you have been saving for, what do you do? 

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Right.  And that’s a legitimate question. 

And my advice is, I booked a flight on American Airlines this morning for a trip I’m taking later this month because it was the best option.  I booked a lot of lead time into getting there early for my appointment in case it’s late.  And that’s kind of the advice I would give someone.  If it’s the best option, should you book away?  It depends on why you’re going. 

If you’re arriving the night before a wedding that obviously can’t be rescheduled, you should maybe — it’s worth asking, is this really the best option?  Because the reliability really has been thrown into question, and if it’s an important event that you can’t reschedule, there’s no guarantee. 

GWEN IFILL: And there’s no immediate solution that we see in the offing.

BEN MUTZABAUGH: Nothing in sight at the moment. 

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Ben Mutzabaugh, USA Today, thank you so much. 

BEN MUTZABAUGH: My pleasure.