Retiring pilots put American in a bind
American Airlines is canceling flights and placing management pilots in its cockpits as it grapples with an onslaught of early pilot retirements that has left it short-handed for February.
On Friday, 143 pilots retired from American, the nation's largest airline. That's one of the largest pilot groups to depart en masse in airline history, amounting to about half the total number of American pilots who typically retire in a given year, according to the carrier's pilots union.
The majority of those cashing out are Boeing 767 and 777 captains at the top of the airline's pay scale, including 16 such pilots based at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Their abrupt departure is creating a manpower crunch on some of American's most lucrative overseas routes. The airline has canceled 28 flights for February, including trips from Chicago to London and Beijing, because of staffing shortfalls.
American is the third major airline to grapple with pilot shortages over the past year as U.S. carriers stretch staffing in a bid to lower costs. United Airlines was forced to cancel flights as storms depleted its pilot reserves in December, and Northwest Airlines struggled to man its planes during peak travel periods last summer.
"All the slack gets cut out of the system in a restructuring, so there's very limited ability to respond to anomalies," said aviation consultant Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co.
Many American pilots retired early to take advantage of a contracting quirk that enabled them to turn back the clock as they collected their retirement payout. If they left by Feb. 1, that lump-sum payment would be based on an investment fund's value on Oct. 31. The pilots fund has shed nearly 20 percent of its value since that date, and with the economy slowing it isn't likely to rebound soon.
Pilots at the end of a 30-year career at American who left Friday stood to gain about $300,000, according to the Allied Pilots Association, American's pilots union.
The decision to retire was a no-brainer for Mark Epperson, a Boeing 767 captain and 30-year American veteran, since the investment gain far exceeded the salary he would have earned by staying on the job.
"We're talking about work free for a year and a half," said Epperson, 59, who retired months earlier than he had planned. "It just doesn't make sense, with all the risk in the industry, to not take that [gain]."
To cope with its mass exodus, American has urged pilots not to take vacations this month and is offering perks to those who volunteer for extra flying.
The carrier also has called in about 250 pilots who hold management posts, such as helping train pilots or flying jets to and from its maintenance base in Tulsa.
The Allied Pilots Association, which is embroiled in contract negotiations with company management, says those maneuvers prove American needs to speed its rehiring of the 2,107 pilots who remain furloughed and haven't been offered an opportunity to rejoin the airline.
"If you send management pilots back to the line, that's an indication that you don't have enough line pilots," said Gregg Overman, the union's communications director.
American spokeswoman Susan Gordon notes that the carrier has recalled about 660 pilots over the past year. But planning its manpower for the month ahead has been difficult, she said, because pilots who are retiring aren't required to notify the company in advance.
"If someone doesn't show up Feb. 1 for their flight to Beijing, that's their first clue that you're retired," said David Aldrich, an Airbus A300 captain for American.