To say Fourth of July weekend 2022 was a debacle for American Airlines would be an understatement.
A glitch in the company’s scheduling program inadvertently allowed so many overworked pilots to opt out of their scheduled flights that the result was hundreds of cancellations and delays as planes sat with no one to fly them and passengers were left stranded.
Other scheduled flights were forced into the air with an understaffed cockpit, according to the Allied Pilots Association, the pilots’ union handling American Airlines.
As a result, the company is paying pilots triple their normal rate as they struggle to catch up to customer demand, and the airline has also agreed to pay pilots double-time permanently for all flights on peak days (usually holiday flights). And they're not alone. Experts say forced retirement ages for pilots, fewer pilots coming out of the military and prohibitive costs for pilot training have created a situation that is difficult to erase.
"During the pandemic, thousands of pilots were offered early retirement packages and others were fired or furloughed because of lack of travel demand. This came on top of an already looming pilot shortage due to the advancing age of baby boomers, who as of 2019 made up almost half the pilots in the air. Now travel is rebounding from the pandemic, and the lack of pilots is dire," NBC News reported.
They added that about 5,773 pilots a year are hitting the age of 65, when the Federal Aviation Administration mandates retirement for commercial pilots
Airlines have been struggling with staffing shortages ever since returning to work after the COVID lockdown with seemingly every holiday weekend since the pandemic shutdown being marred by cancellations.
In addition to the usual attrition due to retirements or career changes, American Airlines pilots are woefully overdue for a new labor contract. Negotiations began in 2019 with the hopes that a new deal would be ironed out by 2020. But the talks were derailed by COVID-19 and the shutdown that followed, leaving pilots to continue to toil under an outdated 2015 agreement.
For safety reasons, pilots who feel fatigued are allowed to opt out of flights, but last weekend’s computing glitch allowed more opt-outs than the system could handle.