'Flights From Hell': Is American Airlines' the Worst?


Two widely publicized “flights from hell” have sapped American Airlines’ already bad reputation as it struggles with bankruptcy and battles its pilots union in contract talks.

On Monday, a flight on the Boston-Miami route had to make an emergency landing in New York after a block of seats wrenched loose inside the plane.

That followed a weekend account in The New York Times by a passenger who suffered an incident-marred, service-deprived, 30-hour nightmare trip from Paris to New York.

Popular satirist Gary Shteyngart described a journey that started with a delay in Paris, stopped because of new problems in London, where passengers had to find their own way around the airport and ultimately spend the night.

The next morning their replacement flight was cancelled and American representatives disappeared.

“With each encounter, I steadily began to feel that your employees were prisoners just like us,” he wrote.

“You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor,” Shteyngart wrote.

The two trips further muddied the airline’s plummeting reputation, as it fights through bankruptcy restructuring launched last November.

AA spokesman Matt Miller said the problem on the Boston-Miami flight is being investigated, while the Paris-New York flight was stopped due to mechanical issues.

Neither was related to what he called “our recent operational challenges,” a surge in delays and cancellations after a federal judge, acting in the firm’s bankruptcy proceedings, nullified its contract with its pilots’ union.

American and its parent company AMR have since blamed a rise in delays on a deliberate work slowdown by pilots.

“For the past several weeks, we have seen an unprecedented increase in pilot maintenance write-ups, many at the time of scheduled departure, which are unrelated to safety,” said Miller.

“And, the number of reports where a mechanic has responded to a pilot’s complaint and found nothing wrong increased 97 percent in September,” he said.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents AA pilots, has denied a concerted campaign and blamed the company’s poor reputation and performance on management.

It cited the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent fine of $162 million for poor aircraft maintenance.

But, in public letters last week as it discussed reopening contract talks with AMR, the APA acknowledged accusations that pilots were deliberately delaying departures and ordered a halt to any such actions.

The APA “has not authorized any concerted job action and APA disapproves of any such illegal activity,” it said.

The plunge in reputation makes it harder for American to emerge from bankruptcy in survivable condition.

Questions are raised not only about the unions, but over the motivations of management, who have resisted an open-arms proposal to merge with the more healthy US Airways.

“This is a vicious labor situation. Airlines can recover from this kind of very bad publicity. Or it can kill them, as with Eastern,” said airlines expert Richard Aboulafia.

“The union’s objective is to force a merger with US Airways, but that would put American management out of a job. But since the union looks determined, management may not have a choice.

“If this keeps up, it will wreck the airline’s reputation and chances of survival.”

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