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Originally published September 20, 2012 at 6:51 PM | Page modified September 21, 2012 at 8:09 AM

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Labor strife causing flight cancellations at American Airlines

With American Airlines canceling dozens of flights every day, passengers with fall and winter travel plans are confronting a crucial question: Should they avoid the nation's third-largest carrier because labor strife might cause delays and cancellations?

The Associated Press

Flight cancellations

FLIGHT CANCELLATION numbers for the five biggest U.S. airlines from Sunday through Wednesday, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats:

American Airlines: Canceled 293 flights or 4 percent of its schedule.

United: Canceled 43 flights, or 0.6 percent.

Delta: Canceled 10 flights, or 0.1 percent.

Southwest: Canceled 58 flights, or 0.5 percent.

US Airways: Canceled 33 flights, or 0.7 percent of its schedule.

The Associated Press

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DALLAS — With American Airlines canceling dozens of flights every day, passengers with fall and winter travel plans are confronting a crucial question: Should they avoid the nation's third-largest carrier because labor strife might cause delays and cancellations?

Several prominent travel gurus say it's too early to "book away" from American. They say the number of canceled flights is small and American can find room on other planes for displaced passengers.

The airline expects to cancel up to 2 percent of its total flights through the end of October because of a dispute with pilots. Even if passengers find other flights, it's a setback for American, which is struggling to reverse years of heavy losses.

American executives believe pilots are calling in sick and crews are slowing operations by filing huge numbers of maintenance reports to punish the company for imposing cost-cutting measures as part of its bankruptcy reorganization.

The union insists pilots are reporting to work as usual, and it blames the cancellations on company mismanagement and problems with old planes.

American has canceled nearly 300 flights this week. That number is sure to rise.

The percentage of American flights arriving late also has ballooned. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, fewer than half its flights arrived on time, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats.com.

Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for parent company AMR, blamed pilot sick leave, which he said is running 20 percent higher than a year ago. There has also been an increase in pilots calling in maintenance requests, often right before scheduled departure, he added.

Hicks said American has enough pilots and until recently had been posting its best on-time numbers in years. He said the airline was contacting passengers and giving them options such as letting them fly standby on earlier flights at no extra charge.

Former AMR Chief Executive Robert Crandall said passengers will jump to other airlines. "You can be sure it is happening already," said Crandall, who ran American for 13 years, when the airline was known for innovations such as its frequent-flier program and for strikes by union employees. "Every time the pilots pulled a job action, the public (booked) away."

American has a long history of poor labor relations. Workers accepted pay cuts in 2003 to keep the company out of bankruptcy and became enraged when hundreds of management employees received bonuses that for a few topped $1 million.

The tension has increased since AMR filed for bankruptcy protection in November. In April, American's three unions backed a potential takeover bid from US Airways.

While unions for flight attendants and ground workers accepted new cost-cutting measures this year, the 8,000 members of the Allied Pilots Association (APA) rejected the company's last contract offer. AMR answered by getting a federal bankruptcy judge's permission to impose new pay and work terms on the pilots that include cuts in benefits and more outsourcing of flying to other airlines.

Union leaders say pilots are angry but aren't sabotaging the company. "There is no organized sickout that APA is involved in," union spokesman Gregg Overman said.

The union blamed this week's cancellations on mechanical delays tied to American's aging fleet: about 15 years on average, and even higher for the MD-80 planes that make up the backbone of its domestic fleet. The union also said American should have rehired more furloughed pilots.

American's troubles aren't expected to have a big impact at Sea-Tac International Airport. There are 15 American flights a day out of Sea-Tac, said Perry Cooper, Port of Seattle spokesman.

Out of 81 gates at Sea-Tac, three are used by American to fly to four destinations: Dallas/Fort Worth, JFK, Miami and Chicago/ O'Hare.

"It is perfectly obvious that this is a job action by the pilots," Crandall said. "I think it's childish, it's self-defeating and it's harmful to the company and to other employees."

American is particularly vulnerable to long-term damage if passengers choose other carriers because it is already in bankruptcy and weak compared with bigger rivals United and Delta, he said.

As the week has unfolded, and American posted slightly better on-time arrivals, travel experts advised passengers to wait before they decide to avoid American.

"When people ask, 'Should I book away from American?' I think about whether I'd want my mom getting stranded at (the Dallas-Fort Worth airport) because American canceled her flight home," said Tim Winship, who runs travel website FrequentFlier.com. "I'd tell her to go ahead and book the trip."

Winship's advice is colored by his reluctance to pile on a beleaguered airline. "They need the business more than ever," he said. "I'd hate to be one of the nails in their coffin."

George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com and a frequent flier, predicted American will soon fix the delays and cancellations.

American's predicament comes during one of the slowest travel periods of the year. That will help the airline find new flights for stranded passengers, Hobica said.

"I'm flying on American on Friday," Hobica said, "and I'm not going to change my plans."

Seattle Times staff reporter Emily Heffter contributed to this report.

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