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Computer glitch leaves thousands of American Airlines flights without pilots during Christmas week

An American Airlines jet takes off from Reagan National Airport. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Officials at American Airlines are scrambling after a computer glitch left thousands of flights during Christmas week without pilots.

“This is certainly not routine,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 American pilots. “This is a crisis right now and in that crisis @AmericanAir has gone solo.”

The “solo” in Tajer’s statement refers to American’s efforts to encourage pilots to change their schedules and return to work at a higher level of pay — a decision union officials say was made without consulting them.

In a statement, officials at American sought to reassure passengers with reservations on flights that might be affected.

We are working diligently to address the issue and expect to avoid cancellations this holiday season. We have reserve pilots to help cover flying in December, and we are paying pilots who pick up certain open trips 150 percent of their hourly rate — as much as we are allowed to pay them per the contract. We will work with the APA to take care of our pilots and ensure we get our customers to where they need to go over the holidays.

According to a company memo obtained by The Washington Post, the bulk of the flights are scheduled at the airline’s biggest hub, Dallas-Fort Worth. But the scheduling glitch also affected flights at Washington’s Reagan National, Boston’s Logan International, Miami International, New York’s LaGuardia, Philadelphia International, Salt Lake City International and Charlotte Douglas International airports.

The problem stemmed from an issue with the airline’s scheduling system, according to a person with knowledge of the system who was not authorized to speak publicly. Pilots “bid” for routes, which are then locked into the schedule. But as part of the process, they are allowed to trade or drop trips if the system shows a route is adequately staffed.  However, the system mistakenly showed that routes were covered, when they weren’t, the person said. Officials at American said the computer problem has been fixed.

A statement on APA’s website said that the union became aware of the scheduling issues late last week.

On Friday, management disclosed a failure within the pilot schedule bidding system. As a result, thousands of flights do not have pilots assigned to fly them during the upcoming critical holiday period.

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.

Important to note: By not including APA in developing collaborative solutions to this critical holiday scheduling failure, management’s actions contrast with their handling of previous scheduling failures involving other work groups. This stands in direct opposition to the company mantra of “Validating the Trust” and the stated goal of making culture a competitive advantage. Management’s actions likewise jeopardize any collaborative effort to ensure our passengers have a pilot crew to take them to their important holiday events.

Officials at American Airlines declined to say how many flights could potentially be affected, but Tajer told Bloomberg News that more than 15,000 flights scheduled between Dec. 17 through Dec. 31, could be affected. A separate document obtained by The Washington Post however, showed that flights scheduled as early as Dec. 9 are also understaffed.