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American Goes To Court Over Pilots

February 12, 1999

DALLAS (AP) _ American Airlines cancelled nearly half of its flights today as a federal judge prepared for a hearing on a contempt motion against the pilots union as a job action continued despite a back-to-work order.

This morning, company spokesman Tim Smith said the carrier was canceling 1,046 flights out of its normal 2,250 daily flights for today.

More than half of the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier’s flights were canceled Thursday as the airline’s problems with the disgruntled pilots union grew. Pilots continued to call in sick and refused to fly overtime, leaving thousands of passengers stranded across the country.

In Miami, Lucia Bernan and her 4-year-old daughter Melanie were trying to figure out how to get back home to Caracas after their flight was canceled.

``My flight was supposed to go out at 10:30 and here I am. I don’t know what’s going to happen,″ said Bernan.

``It’s incredible to me how such a prestigious company could do something like this ... Everything is so disorganized that it’s extremely hard to believe this is actually happening.″

Pilots are angry over the integration of recently purchased Reno Air, which has resulted in disparities in pay.

American pilots are barred by federal law from striking over the issue, but federal regulations do require individual pilots to call in sick if they think they are under undue emotional stress.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall ordered an end to the ``sickout″ job action that has been going on since last Saturday, but that seemed to have little effect. He has scheduled a hearing for this morning in his Dallas court on a request by American to hold the Allied Pilots Association in contempt.

According to American, 1,170 of its 2,250 scheduled flights were canceled Thursday, the most in one day since the job action began.

``We’re surprised by the conduct of the union leadership,″ said John Hotard, a spokesman for AMR Corp., the parent of American.

Capt. Jim Philpot, a spokesman for the union, said, however, that the APA is complying with the temporary restraining order.

``We are meeting or exceeding the judge’s requirements,″ said Philpot.

Overall, more than 3,800 flights have been canceled since Saturday, affecting the plans of more than 380,000 travelers. AMR said its American Eagle flights have not been affect by the job action.

Passengers attempting to reschedule or get refunds through the company’s reservation desk found their calls disconnected by the overloaded system or forced to wait on hold for an agent.

For those with low-priority tickets, it has been especially trying.

George and Midge Griffin of Cincinnati had been at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport since Wednesday trying to get a flight to Ecuador to visit their daughter. They’d purchased discount tickets from a relative who works for American, and that gave their travel plans a lower priority than those holding full-price tickets.

``We’re at the bottom of the barrel,″ George Griffin bemoaned.

The couple had been bumped three times in their efforts to get on a flight to Miami on Wednesday and had finally given up. They were trying unsuccessfully Thursday to get a flight back to Cincinnati and planned to reschedule their trip in September.

This isn’t the first time the Allied Pilots Association has ignored a judge’s ruling. During a similar dispute in 1990, hundreds of pilots called in sick after being ordered back to work.

American pilots have had a contentious relationship with company management for the past decade. Two years ago when contract talks failed, the pilots went on strike for a few minutes until they were called back to work by President Clinton.

``It doesn’t surprise me that we are having more trouble. As long as AMR management uses this confrontational approach, it is not likely to get better,″ said Capt. Neil Ekblaw, an American pilot based out of New York.

Even if everybody heeded the judge’s order, travelers shouldn’t expect smooth holiday travels. There will be more cancellations as the company works to get planes and crews moved to the cities where flights are scheduled.

Pilots say the disagreement is as much over the contract, the outsourcing of jobs and past management decisions as it is about Reno Air pilots’ pay.

Some Reno pilots make half the $164,000 a year that an experienced American pilot makes. The American pilots want AMR to add Reno pilots to the higher pay scale more quickly, and want some of their own to move up the ladder.

AMR said that it will take about 12 to 18 months do that and the pilot union’s demands would cost as much as $50 million this year.

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