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Delays at American Airlines take a toll on the company, fliers

American Airlines blames its operational slowdown on a dispute with pilots. Some travelers are using other airlines to avoid possible hassles, experts say.

October 01, 2012|By Gregory Karp
  • American Airlines, whose parent company AMR Corp. is in bankruptcy protection, has been ravaged by operational problems in recent weeks. Since Sept. 16, barely half its flights have been on time. Above, a plane is worked on at Miami International Airport.
American Airlines, whose parent company AMR Corp. is in bankruptcy protection,… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )

CHICAGO — Andrew Sobotka was delayed five hours last week on a flight back to Chicago from Las Vegas, where he and his hockey teammates were celebrating the team captain's birthday. Because of the delay, he and several teammates of the Chicago Gay Hockey Assn. didn't get home until 4 a.m., he said.

"A major inconvenience," he said. "Obviously, everyone has to go to work the next day."

Sobotka, 26, of Chicago said he was especially annoyed that American treated people in his party differently, offering some of them rebooking and higher-compensation travel vouchers. "They didn't compensate people equally," he said.

"Once I use my voucher, I'll try not to fly American Airlines," he said.

Ongoing flight delays and cancellations at American Airlines are taking a toll on the company and its passengers nationwide, as the airline entered a third week of severe operational slowdowns, which it blames on a labor dispute with its pilots.

Would-be passengers, especially business travelers, probably are defecting to other airlines to avoid potential hassles, experts say.

"People are already booking on other airlines.... It's starting to increase exponentially," said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Washington communications firm Levick, which has counseled airlines in managing their reputations. "If this goes on for another couple of weeks, it could really damage the brand, massively."

American Airlines, whose parent company AMR Corp. is in bankruptcy protection, has been ravaged by operational problems in recent weeks. Since Sept. 16, barely half its flights have been on time, while other major airlines collectively were on time about 87% of the time, according to data from FlightStats.com. During that time, American has canceled more than 900 flights and experienced nearly 13,000 delays nationwide, far more than any other major airline.

At Los Angeles International Airport, where American is the largest carrier, the airline had an on-time rating of only 55% over the weekend, with nearly 4% of its flights in and out of the airport canceled, according to FlightStats.com.

Adding to the airline's headaches, seats on two separate American flights came loose over the weekend, prompting the carrier to inspect those planes and six other Boeing 757 jets. No one was injured. The Federal Aviation Administration said it is looking into the incidents.

American's performance has been so bad, it's as if flights nationwide are operating with inclement weather conditions, said Joe Brancatelli, a business-travel writer at JoeSentMe.com. "Their numbers are atrocious," he said. "Every day is a blizzard at American right now."

Chris Salinas, 39, of Chicago was at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on Monday waiting to travel to Louisville, Ky., on business. He said he travels three or four times a year and felt obligated to use American Airlines because he earns frequent-flier miles through the company.

Even though his flight had not been delayed or canceled as of 2 p.m., Salinas said he would consider using other airlines because of American Airline's labor strife. "I will switch whenever I have the chance," he said.

AMR Corp. blames the delays and cancellations on disgruntled pilots who have dramatically increased the number of maintenance reports they have filed, which holds up flights because the problems must be addressed before takeoff. AMR has said some of the write-ups have been for such issues as broken coffee pots, non-functioning passenger reading lights and torn seat-back pockets.

However, the pilots union, the Allied Pilots Assn., said it has not sponsored a coordinated effort to harm the airline and that the write-ups are increasing because American isn't adequately maintaining its aged fleet of planes. As part of its bankruptcy restructuring, AMR said it hoped to reduce labor costs as much as 20%.

The leaders of the 10,000-member pilots union, angered that the airline threatened last week to impose an legal injunction against the group, said they plan to meet Tuesday to decide whether and when to relaunch negotiations with the carrier.

gkarp@tribune.com

Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this report.

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