American’s Christmas Scheduling SNAFU

Old and new American Airlines tails lined up at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in January 2017.
Old and new American Airlines tails lined up at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in January 2017.

Thousands of American Airlines flights are at risk of not operating in December due to a “glitch” in the crew staffing software. The carrier finalized a schedule that did not include coverage for all its flights, with many missing a captain, first officer or both. Airports affected include Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Charlotte according to a company memo as shown to Bloomberg.

The company acknowledges the mess and notes that the scheduling software “glitch” is now resolved. But the staffing issues remain problematic. The company is offering pilots a 150% pay rate to give up vacations it previously approved in order to cover the flights. Unsurprisingly the pilots’ union is not amused.

Because management unilaterally created their solution in violation of the contract, neither APA nor the contract can guarantee the promised payment of the premium being offered.

That message to pilots, from the Allied Pilots Association, may be overly dramatic but it underscores the tenuous relationship the APA has with the company. The APA would prefer that it be included in negotiating a solution – potentially including even better payouts, comp days or other benefits – to help backfill the holes.

Losing allocated vacation time is a touchy subject in all industries but arguably more so in aviation. The operation never shuts down so many crew are familiar with not spending the holidays at home. Working under the assumption that they were granted and then facing a potential of not really having the time off can be brutal.

This is not the first major airline scheduling screw up this year. Ryanair somewhat famously managed to not budget enough crew hours for flights in September, a move with ripple effects into later months. In that case hundreds of thousands of passengers saw their flights vanish as the carrier could not convince pilots to work the extra shifts. That trouble was likely exacerbated by Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary’s many disparaging comments about pilots as the story unfolded. The current APA/American situation does not appear quite that bad but we also await confirmation that the schedule is fully covered.

Also, as someone who spends a lot of time working with computers, I’m highly suspicious that this is a “computer glitch” rather than something caused by human error. Unclear that we’ll ever know the full story, but I’m very, very, very skeptical. Computers do what the human programmers tell them to do.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. Appears that almost all of the affected flights have been crewed. Just need to keep fingers crossed that no bad storms affect the airline. If that occurs, things could get ugly.

    2. Did most pilots go for the 1.5x incentive pay? Or did AA have to sweeten the pot? Most junior pilots had no reasonable expectation of holding Christmas off anyway, so to get paid time and a half or better for flying they would otherwise be doing doesn’t seem like such a bad deal…

    1. Mark, I don’t believe that’s an option once your leave has been approved. I don’t have any knowledge of the ALPA/AA contract but there is likely specific language saying that you can’t arbitrarily cancel previously approved leave for the good of the company.

      1. APA, not ALPA, though that’s not too important. Even if it was possible it would be a horrible business decision to unilaterally require such.

    2. Yeah…that’s not the way the world actually operates. Certainly not with unions in place. But even without unions that’s a great way to maybe realize a short term win and lose on the larger scale.

    3. Maybe. Maybe not.

      But right now in this industry the union is a very real entity. Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t change that. And, again, even if the union wasn’t there unilaterally revoking the vacation that way without significant consideration would be a ridiculously bad play by management. I’m pretty sure they’re not that stupid.

    4. Given the fact that people have multiple choices of airlines to fly as well as multiple modes of transportation- there will be a fix in place to transport people to their destinations. I’m sure there is something in the union contract which takes computer generated errors into consideration.

    5. This was almost certainly human error, not computer error. I don’t for a moment buy that the system failed so much as a person incorrectly set the parameters before running the batch.

      Computers do exactly what we tell them to do.

    6. I agree with you. This luckily for AA is a very solvable problem. Everyone’s time has a price. Pay them what they want and I am sure they will forgo their vacation and work. If you hold fast to less than desirable bonus pay, then you simply won’t get enough takers. Any pilot bonus pay will be cheaper than canceling full holiday flights.

    7. Regardless of human or computer error- a error occurred and one side is trying to capitalize even when they know it was simply an error!!!

  1. It’s beginning to look a lot like I have to rebook my entire family for our Xmas break vacation in NYC. Let’s see where my EXP gets me. I imagine not very far…

    1. usually the exp desk is very prompt but 30 min waits indicate others are concerned. But I am sure the pilots will leverage this and we will be ok

    2. Chris, AA issued an update earlier. There are a “few hundred” flights still without pilots. That number is steadily shrinking; apparently, there are a lot of pilots who like the idea of earning 150% on overtime. AA also staffs an above-average number of pilots in December. I really do think your trip will be fine, barring any bad weather that could hit around Xmas, of course.

    3. The pilots dispute the “few hundred” number, of course, so things are not necessarily solved yet. But I still believe that it’ll be fine when the time comes.

    1. Not new software; was installed more than a year ago. Looks like there was an unknown flaw in the QC process that allowed too many “trip trades” to occur around Christmas.

  2. Felt like I read somewhere the issue primarily impacts flights between Christmas and New Years? Or is this the entire month of December? I know they typically mark flights around the holidays as red which means pilots cannot drop but instead they all were green so pilots dropped those flights en masse.

  3. How do you know its almost resolved? Is there an article posted stating they have the issue fixed?

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