DALLAS - With American Airlines canceling dozens of flights every day, passengers with fall travel plans are confronting an inconvenient question: Should they avoid the nation's third-largest carrier because labor strife might cause delays and cancellations?
Several prominent travel gurus say it's too early to "book away" from American. They say the number of canceled flights is still small and that American can find room on other planes for displaced passengers.
The airline expects to cancel up to 2 percent of its total flights through the end of October because of a dispute with pilots. It's a setback for American, which is struggling to reverse years of heavy losses.
American executives believe pilots are calling in sick and crews are slowing operations by filing huge numbers of maintenance reports to punish the company for imposing tough cost-cutting measures as part of its bankruptcy reorganization.
The union insists pilots are reporting to work as usual, and it blames the cancelations on company mismanagement and problems with old planes.
American has canceled 300 flights this week, or 1.25 percent of its schedule. That number is sure to rise. On Sunday and Monday, American scrapped more than 5 percent of its flights.
The percentage of American flights arriving late has ballooned. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, fewer than half its flights arrived on time, according to the FlightStats.com flight-tracking service.
Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for parent company AMR Corp. said pilot sick leave is running 20 percent higher than a year ago. There has also been a "significant" increase in pilots calling in maintenance requests, often right before scheduled departure, he added.
Hicks said until recently American had been posting its best on-time numbers in years. He said the airline was contacting passengers and giving them options such as letting them fly standby on earlier flights at no extra charge.
Former AMR CEO Robert Crandall said passengers will jump to other airlines. "You can be sure it is happening already," said Crandall, who ran American for 13 years.
American has a long history of poor labor relations. It endured strikes by flight attendants and pilots in the 1990s. Workers accepted pay cuts in 2003 to keep the company out of bankruptcy, then were enraged when hundreds of management employees received bonuses that for a few topped $1 million.
The tension has increased since AMR filed for bankruptcy protection in November. In April, American's three unions threw their support behind a potential takeover bid from US Airways Group Inc.
While unions for flight attendants and ground workers accepted new cost-cutting measures this year, the 8,000 members of the Allied Pilots Association rejected the company's last contract offer. AMR answered by getting a federal bankruptcy judge's permission to impose new pay and work terms on the pilots that include cuts in benefits and more outsourcing of flying to other airlines.
Union leaders say pilots are angry but aren't sabotaging the company.
"There is no organized sickout that APA is involved in, absolutely not," union spokesman Gregg Overman said.
Statistics provided to the union by American show that 564 pilots, or 7.5 percent, called in sick Tuesday. The sick rate was at least 6 percent in nine other months over the past year. It peaked at 9.5 percent in October 2011.
The union blamed this week's cancellations on mechanical delays tied to American's aging fleet - about 15 years on average.
Travel experts advised passengers to wait before they decide to avoid American.
Said Tim Winship, who runs travel website FrequentFlier.com, "I'd tell her to go ahead and book the trip."
George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, predicted that American will soon fix the delays and cancellations. He said he's seen company employees trying extra hard to help bumped passengers.
American Airlines at a glance
• Grounded flights: American Airlines has seen an increase in canceled flights and delays, which it blames on pilots calling in sick and crew members filing maintenance requests.
• Labor turbulence: Pilots and other employees are unhappy with American because the airline has cut jobs and benefits and changed work rules as it reorganizes under bankruptcy protection.
• Travel tips: For passengers, the best thing about American's troubled operations this week is that they are occurring during a slow period for travel. You've got a better chance of finding another flight if yours is canceled. Or you can ask for a refund.
The Associated Press