A scheduling glitch has left American Airlines scrambling to find pilots to operate thousands of flights over the busy Christmas holiday period.
A spokesman for the airline said Wednesday that American expects to avoid canceling flights by paying overtime and using reserve or on-call pilots.
American isn't saying how many flights are affected, but the pilots' union says that about 15,000 flights were scheduled without a captain, a co-pilot or both.
American, the world's biggest airline, has about 15,000 active pilots and expects to operate more than 200,000 flights in December.
Pilots bid each month for flying assignments based on seniority. The scheduling glitch let pilots drop scheduled flights - to take a vacation over Christmas, for example - even when there were no other pilots available for that flight. Normally such a request would be denied, especially during busy travel periods.
The pilots' union estimated that when the problem was discovered late last week, about 19,000 cockpit seats were left empty. The glitch affected flights between Dec. 17 and Dec. 31 from nearly a dozen airports including hubs in Dallas, Chicago and Miami.
"This is a potential crisis that we see well in advance," said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the union. "This is very unusual."
At O'Hare International Airport's Terminal Three, the news was the last thing American Airlines passengers wanted to hear during an already-hectic travel season.
"In a very stressful life at a very stressful time, it adds to the stress by like five times," said passenger Michael Sachs.
"Somewhere between frustrated and angry, because I think things like this can be, they can be avoided," said Stacey Onysio of Buffalo Grove, who will be flying around Christmas.
The union has lodged a protest against the company's plan to fix the mistake by tapping reserve pilots and offering overtime pay for some of the unstaffed flights. The union says American is violating its labor contract by imposing a solution without union input, and is improperly restricting premium pay.
Some nervous customers tweeted at the airline, looking for reassurance that their Christmas-travel plans would not be upset.
American officials "expect to avoid cancellations this holiday season," said airline spokesman Matt Miller. "We will work with the (union) to take care of our pilots and ensure we get our customers to where they need to go over the holidays."
Miller declined to say how much American expects to pay out in overtime because of the glitch.
"American has dug itself a hole. It has a shortage of manpower. It's hard to adjust for these things. They're forced to ask pilots to work overtime," said Professor Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul Unviersity. "We'll see how it unfolds but there's a lot of uncertainty here."
Despite American's can-do response, scheduling mix-ups can create serious problems in the airline business. In September, Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair said it would cancel more 20,000 flights between November and March after admitting it "messed up" the transition to a new system for scheduling employee vacations.
Shares of American Airlines Group Inc. lost nearly $2 after news of the glitch, although they still closed up 3 cents at $49.25. Rivals fared much better - Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue all rose at least 3 percent.
WLS-TV contributed to this report.
American Airlines glitch leaves flights without pilots for 'critical holiday period,' union says
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