Northwest pilot shortage grounding flights
Northwest Airlines says that it is seeing spike in pilots calling in sick; union says problem is airline trying to schedule more flights than pilots can handle.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Northwest Airlines has seen an increase in the number of canceled flights once again, a condition that the pilots union is blaming on management for not having enough staffing, and which the airline charges is due to a spike in pilots calling in sick starting this past Friday.
The airline says that from Friday through Sunday about 8 percent of its scheduled flights were canceled. Statistics from tracking service FlightStats puts the canceled total a bit higher -- 526 out of 4,187 scheduled flights during that period for about 12.6 percent.
The canceled flights can cause problems for travelers unable to find available seats with the nation's airlines filling a record percentage of their seats this summer.
Northwest said it again expects 8 percent of its flights to be canceled on Monday, while FlightStats reports that as of 12:30 p.m. 99 out of 1,420 flights, or 7 percent, had already been canceled.
The pilots have been arguing since the spring that the changes in the scheduling procedure instituted by Northwest Airlines while it was operating under bankruptcy court protections did not leave it with adequate staffing levels for the busy summer travel season.
The union charges that Northwest has scheduled pilots to fly so many flights that they are running out of hours at the end of every month due to normal delays. Federal Aviation Administration rules limit the hours a pilot can fly during the month, with the flight hours starting once the plane pushes back from the gate until it arrives at the destination gate.
But while the airline admitted in June that some bad weather during the month had left pilots unavailable to fly near the end of the month, it said the current canceled flights were due to sick calls, not a lack of available hours.
"Beginning Friday morning, we noticed a spike in certain narrow body [pilot] absenteeism," said airline spokesman Roman Blahoski.
He would not comment on whether the airline believed the problem to be either organized by the Air Line Pilots Association or a wildcat job action by unhappy pilots or simply an unusual number of pilots all being sick.
The union's Web site denied that there is anything improper about pilots calling in sick, although it reminded members they were not allowed to call off unless they were truly too sick or fatigued to fly.
"ALPA is not aware of any improper use of sick calls and believes any increase is attributable to the impact of increased days and hours worked," said the message the union records and publishes for members on its Web site. "No one needs to tell the DC-9, 320 and 757 pilots that the cumulative, month after month, high monthly maximums produce a factor of fatigue and even instances of sick calls that may not have occurred otherwise."
The union said that its negotiators met with Northwest management on July 19 and is making progress in putting in some limits on the hours that pilots are required to work. But is said the changes agreed to so far do not address the full problem.
The company said it is dealing with the shortage of pilots by trying to recall furloughed pilots or hire new pilots. It also has decided to trim its August schedule by 4 percent compared to a year ago. It had previously announced plans to trim the schedule by 3 percent.
All the nation's major airlines won changes in their union contracts in recent years that increased the number of hours that pilots would fly, while trimming their staff and schedule in an attempt to cut costs and stem losses. Since 2001, Delta Air Lines (Charts, Fortune 500), US Airways Group (Charts, Fortune 500) and United Airlines' parent UAL Corp. (Charts, Fortune 500) all went through bankruptcy, while No. 1 carrier American Airlines won concessions from the pilots due to the threat of bankruptcy at parent AMR Corp. (Charts, Fortune 500)
The entire industry has seen an increase in canceled flights through June, the most recent period for which industry stats are available, although no major airline has had a greater percentage of flights grounded than Northwest.
Beyond the changes in their schedules and contract, Northwest pilots also object to the pay and bonuses packages that top management at the airline received when it emerged from bankruptcy May 31.