DALLAS -- American Airlines Inc. will reduce its schedule about 11/2 percent in June because an abnormally high number of pilots are calling in sick, the carrier said Thursday.
The airline doesn't think the increase in sick leave is tied to a protest or epidemic. Instead, officials believe it has been prompted by pending changes in the company's benefit programs, with pilots hurrying to the doctor to avoid added medical costs and stricter limits on sick leave.
"As we head into our peak travel months, we're making adjustments to our schedule to better match the availability of crew resources and make certain we provide our customers with reliable service," the carrier said.
"We are constantly evaluating our operational needs and available crew resources, but some variables are beyond our control, such as increased reserve utilization due to higher than normal sick usage and residual effects from pilot retirements at the end of last year," the carrier said. "We are proactively addressing this issue to ensure minimal impact to our customers' travel plans."
American, which filed for bankruptcy protection in November, has proposed significant changes to the health insurance benefits it offers workers so that employees pick up a greater share of their medical costs.
American has asked a federal bankruptcy judge to throw out its union contracts so it can impose the cost-cutting it seeks, including the changes in medical insurance and tougher controls on the use of sick time.
On Monday, representatives of the pilots union and other American labor groups will be in bankruptcy court to begin presenting their case in opposition to American's request to throw out their current contracts.
Pilots first learned of the scheduling problem Tuesday when they received a message from American saying the company would delay the bidding for flights in June. Pilots and flight attendants bid on the group of flights they want to work, with seniority determining who gets the best schedules.
"The updated schedule and associated bid lines are not expected to be delayed by more than a week," the carrier said in the message to employees. "We'll pass on additional information as soon as it's available."
The Allied Pilots Association, in a Wednesday hotline message, said its contract with American requires the company to post the schedules for bidding by Saturday and inform pilots of the flights they've been awarded by May 19.
"Your APA leadership has repeatedly expressed concerns to management about potential manning shortfalls during peak travel periods," the union said. "Unfortunately, our warnings have gone unheeded."
It added: "If management fails to comply with the contract, APA will immediately file a presidential grievance."