American Airlines Scores a Court Victory as Battle With Mechanics Drags On

Jul 11, 2019

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American Airlines is in the midst of a war with its mechanics that no one seems to be winning. The airline’s operations have been abysmal the past few months as maintenance cancellations have spiked, in what management has alleged is a slowdown by the airline’s mechanics. Yet, workers still haven’t gotten what they wanted from the airline. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of passengers have become victims of the apparent conflict.

A day after American Airlines filed a lawsuit against its mechanics alleging an illegal work slowdown, Transport Workers Union (TWU) union president John Samuelsen publicly threatened American Airlines president Robert Isom with the “bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw.”

On June 14, citing runaway flight cancellations due to maintenance slowdowns, American Airlines sought and received a temporary restraining order against its mechanics and their union. However, American has continued to be plagued by maintenance cancellations even after the judge’s ruling that mechanics must end the slowdown and resume normal work.

Now, on Wednesday afternoon, American Airlines returned to US District Court to seek additions to the temporary restraining order. Just hours after the request was made, a judge ordered that the union comply with all of the requests that the airline made in its requests.

Top union leaders are now given five business days to meet with line maintenance workers, local union leaders and post on its website and through videos to:

“… communicate a sincere and emphatic respect for the requirements of the Temporary Restraining Order and an imperative that every single mechanic and related employee fully and immediately comply with an unequivocal goal of restoring the mechanics and related employees’ behavior and the operation to normal subject to the imposition of fines or discipline … “

With Wednesday’s court filing, we are learning more about what American’s management is alleging as a slowdown: 

Steep Increase in Cancellations

As anyone who’s looked at an American Airlines departure board recently might suspect, there’s been a sharp increase in the number of flight cancellations at the world’s largest airline. Analysis done for American Airlines included in the court filings found that there were 592 additional maintenance-related cancellations directly related to maintenance technician slowdown between June 15 and July 7. That’s around 26 per day.

For reference, using the same metrics, the airline estimates that there were 644 additional maintenance-related cancellations from March 8 to May 13 — or around 10 per day. Those 10 per day were bad enough for American Airlines to file the original suit. And now the cancellation rate has nearly tripled.

However,  left out of American Airlines’ latest filing is the fact that this is down from 31 maintenance-related cancellations per day that led to the filing for the original temporary restraining order. So, cancellations appear to have improved, but marginally.

Increase in Unscheduled Aircraft Out Of Service

In Wednesday’s court filings, an American Airlines’ operations director shared that there’s been a steep increase in unscheduled aircraft out of service (AOS) at 7am. This key operational metric averaged 36 in 2017 and 38 in 2018. Now, American has “routinely experienced unscheduled AOS at 7:00 a.m. in the high-50s and low-60s.”

In a separate filing, an expert witness shares that an AOS rate over 60 “did not occur on any single day during 2018 or 2017.” Later in the report, the witness shares “on no single day since the [temporary restraining order] has unscheduled AOS at 0700 reached even the average level recorded the past two summers (42).”

And the increase in unscheduled aircraft out of service hasn’t been caused by more maintenance requests by pilots or technicians, American said in its filing.

Exhibit filed from an expert witness showing the increase in unresolved issues compared to write-up rates by pilots and mechanics.

The problem became so reliably bad that American Airlines said it “implemented a program of ‘pre-cancelling’ flights” between June 15 and July 1. Rather than waiting until the morning of departure, the airline would assume that it would have more unscheduled aircraft out of service and proactively cancelled “flights well in advance of their scheduled departure time, so that customers had more time to make alternative arrangements and/or to rebook.”

Lack of Overtime Work

In the Temporary Restraining Order issued on June 14, the court prohibits mechanics from “refused to accept overtime as [they] would in the normal course.” In this week’s filing, AA asserts that the mechanics have “initiated a particularly outrageous violation” of the order “in complete disrespect of the Court.”

AA specifically points to the “overtime ban” that the mechanics on the Philadelphia line maintenance station have enacted since July 1. According to the airline’s court filing:

On July 1, for example, American sought five mechanics to work overtime on the first shift, and out of 162 qualified mechanics, not a single mechanic agreed to work overtime. This continued for every shift on every day of the entire week from July 1 to 7 (excluding July 3 due to a technical issue) — with every mechanic in Philadelphia refusing to work a single hour of proffered overtime for six of the seven days in this period. During the same period last year, mechanics worked 658 hours of proffered overtime.

According to supplemental filings, AA details how it requested between 4 and 12 technicians per shift to work this proffered overtime. Although some technicians worked “job continuation” overtime — which is “when a mechanic is working on a maintenance project and stays beyond the end of his/her shift” — not a single technician worked proffered overtime in this period:

Date Number of AMTs
Total OT Hours
Qualified AMTs Number of AMTs
Who Accepted
July 1 23 184 431 0
July 2 30 240 420 0
July 3 4 32 (not generated) 0
July 4 18 144 348 0
July 5 21 192 386 0
July 6 32 288 377 0
July 7 32 296 459 0
Total 160 1,376 2,421 0

For reference, in the same period of 2018, mechanics worked 80 overtime shifts for a total of 658 overtime hours, according to American’s filing.

It’s unclear how this war between AA and its mechanics will end. For the sake of AA flyers, let’s hope that it ends soon — and that the union ultimately doesn’t follow through on its rhetoric of a “bloody” and “ugly” battle.

Featured image by Robert Alexander via Getty Images

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