The World v. American Airlines

Fallout from the Fort Worth-based airline's Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization leads to unprecedented delays, an unhappy pilot's union and even unhappier (and vocal) consumers.
Tue October 2, 2012 7:16 pm
Flickr | Kurmbox

Loose seats  on its airplanes sliding around “like a carnival ride.”  Unprecedented delays for the past three weeks. A profane  Twitter complaint account . And more bad press than Todd Akin , Bashar Assad , and tainted peanut butter put together. 

This not a fun week to be American Airlines. 

“Friends Don’t Let Friends Fly American Airlines,” Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias proclaimed on Monday, after a bad personal experience with the Fort Worth-based carrier, which is in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and engaged in a court battle with its pilots union. Wrote Yglesias:

You seriously have to stop traveling on American Airlines. Seriously. If you’re booking some travel somewhere, book it somewhere else. If your company has some relationship with American that gives them a strong preference for you to fly with American, still book it somewhere else.

Yglesias, who had flown from Tulsa to Dallas last week, experienced a long and frustrating maintenance delay made worse by an under-operating DFW shuttle train. 

And he’s not the only one. His column was written partly in response to a Sunday New York Times  op-ed by novelist Gary Shteyngart who had a far worse AA trip: A Paris to New York flight that ultimately took thirty hours, including an unscheduled retreat to London Heathrow halfway over the Atlantic. Wrote Shteyngart: 

You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor. 

But as Yglesias notes this is not about the anecdotal horror stories, but rather it is a systemic problem. ”[S]ince Sept. 16  fully half of American’s flights have been delayed , while just over 90 percent of non-American flights have been on schedule,” he wrote.

The basic issue is that  American Airlines filed for bankruptcy in December  not primarily to restructure its debts but to restructure its contracts with the unions that represent its workers. The company successfully used the threat of court orders to induce almost all its unions to agree to givebacks, but they couldn’t come to agreement with the pilots. Then on Sept. 5, American  got a bankruptcy judge to throw out its pilots’ contract . Thus since mid-September the pilots have been essentially sabotaging the airline. 

As Shteyngart wrote, “One passenger told us this was all part of the union’s strategy to destroy the airline. All I know is that with each encounter, I steadily began to feel that your employees were prisoners just like us, armed only with their little walkie-talkies from which issued tinny instructions, lost communiqués from some distant Oz.”

Yglesias also links back to Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News , whose ongoing coverage of American included a Monday blog post with  comments from an anonymous AA pilot about what’s really going on.

The pilot explained that the airline has been besieged with maintenance issues because the unhappy flight crews are no longer letting minor issues slide, or doing something extra to resolve the little problems. Instead of waiting to return their birds to home airports like Dallas and Miami for routine work, they are logging little breakdowns everywhere, keeping planes from taking off.  Yglesias continued:

The smooth operation of an airline requires the active cooperation of skilled pilots who are capable of judging when it does and doesn’t make sense to request new parts and who conduct themselves in the spirit of wanting the airline to succeed. By having the judge throw out the pilots’ contract, the airline has totally lost faith with its pilots and has no ability to run the airline properly. It’s still perfectly safe, but if your goal is to get to your destination on time, you simply can’t fly American.

Also weighing in was Kevin Roose of New York magazine’s Vulture blog, who began his article by cracking:

I’m writing these words in one of the most fraught places on Earth: row fifteen of an American Airlines plane.

As you may have heard, American Airlines has ceased to be much of an airline in recent months and has become a sort of autophagic corporate experiment — a company that seems to be eating itself alive.

Both Yglesias and Roose contend that AA would rather keep digging in against its pilots than pursue a US Airways merger, which might lead to the loss of more jobs at the airline’s management levels.

In fact, as Roose also pointed out (citing an earlier article by the New York Times ’s Andrew Ross Sorkin), there’s cash at stake for the muckety-mucks, as bankruptcy law makes it possible for  AA management to earn up to $600 million in stock “if they can escape from Chapter 11 without merging with a rival airline.”

Meanwhile, at the Wall Street Journal  website Marketwatch, blogger Douglas McIntyre has American number one on his list of “ten brands that may disappear in 2013 .”

“[Parent company] AMR says it plans to emerge from Chapter 11 as a viable airline,” McIntyre wrote. “But that will not happen.”

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