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American Drops Nearly 1,100 Flights

February 11, 1999

DALLAS (AP) _ Nearly half of American Airlines’ flights were grounded Thursday as the airline’s problems with disgruntled pilots grew despite a judge’s back-to-work order.

Passengers fumed and fretted as the nation’s second-largest airline resumed contract talks with the pilots’ union. The airline said separately it was returning to court in Dallas to ask to ask U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall to hold the Allied Pilots Association in contempt.

At the Los Angeles International Airport, where flight cancellations peppered screens, Jennie Sussman said it could be the end of a relationship if she doesn’t make her flight for a Valentine’s Day rendezvous with her boyfriend.

``I’m flying from Chicago to Paris to meet my boyfriend on the Eiffel Tower. We’re probably going to get engaged,″ she said.

About 1,100 flights were scrapped because of a lack of pilots, according to AMR Corp., the parent of American. That’s up from the 990 flights canceled Wednesday and the most since waves of pilots began calling in sick on Saturday.

More than 350,000 travelers have been stranded across the country and 3,500 flights canceled since Saturday.

The airline estimates that 2,400 of its 9,400 pilots called in sick after Judge Kendall on Wednesday ordered an end to the ``sickout″ job action. 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.

``We’re surprised by the conduct of the union leadership,″ said AMR spokesman John Hotard.

For travelers, it was another stressful day.

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.

At Los Angeles, American tried to soothe passengers with a smorgasbord, setting out tables with bagels, cream cheese, muffins and juice in the morning and adding sandwiches and chips around lunchtime.

Malini Biswas arrived in Los Angeles Thursday after a 16-hour flight from Australia. The last leg of her trip to Boston was canceled. After two hours in line, she said: ``I’m remembering now why I don’t go on vacation and why I usually drive.″

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 a 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, there will be cancellations over the next several days as the company works to get planes and crews moved to the cities where flights are scheduled, the company has said.

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.

On Wall Street, AMR stock was down 1.1 percent, or by 62 1/2 cents, at $55.43 3/4 a share in a sharply rising New York Stock Exchange.

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