American Pilots Say Airline Seeks Speed-Up to ‘Ragged Edge’ of Safety Margin
July 28, 2016
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  • The new president of the American Airlines (AAL) pilots union sent a strongly written letter to his members, criticizing the carrier for implementing “speed-up” flight plans to be used at critical times when flights fall behind schedule during the busy summer travel season.

    The letter, sent Thursday morning to the 15,000 members of the Allied Pilots Association, has two headings, “Stop management’s pilot pushing,” and “There will be no ‘speed up’ when it comes to safety.”

    “Pilot pushing” is a widely used term that refers to efforts by airline management to convince pilots to make concessions around the margins of the Federal Aviation Administration’s limitations on flight times and on-duty times.

    “On the first day of my term, I promised that I would fight against any efforts by management to exploit pilots,” wrote Dan Carey, who began his three-year term on July 1.

    “Unfortunately, management has announced a new operations initiative {intended} to exploit our sense of professionalism and our innate willingness to carry the operation and help our company,” Carey said. “This initiative has the potential to place our licenses and, more importantly, our passengers and crew at an increased risk.”

    American spokesman Josh Freed said the carrier “regularly has joint discussion with the FAA and the APA to make sure we are complying with all regulations.

    “This is an ongoing process,” Freed said. “We would never institute any policy that would put safety at risk.”

    The letter reflects ongoing tensions between American and APA. In January, Carey’s predecessor Keith Wilson blasted American for an “on the cheap philosophy” after a series of contract disputes generally involving compensation, scheduling and paycheck miscalculations due to faulty software.

    Some concerns were addressed when the carrier agreed to share profits with employees even though profit-sharing was not addressed in union contracts.

    The current conflict with pilots began on July 12, when Robert Isom, American’s chief operating officer, sent employees a “summer ops update” that included this sentence: “For critical flights, our dispatchers and pilots will work together and utilize ‘speed up’ flight plans to reduce delays involving crew duty times when necessary.”

    Carey said the initiative means American “is manipulating flight plans” in order to ensure that pilots complete flights before they reach the FAA’s maximums for flight and duty time. In other words, the airline speeds up portions of a flight’s operation in order to avoid having pilots time out. But the speed-ups may violate safety protocols, Carey said.

    Among the “speed up” techniques American has implemented are these: Flying close to the aircraft’s maximum speed limit as set by the manufacturer, which for a Boeing 737 is an air speed equivalent to about 630 mph in ground speed; setting higher air speeds through areas of forecast or known turbulence, conditions where aircraft manufacturers direct lower speeds; reducing taxi time by using speeds and airport pathways that deviate from the norm; and using flight routes that deviate from normal, expected air traffic control routing.

    “These last-minute manipulations are used to make a flight appear legal when in reality it’s not or is, at best, on the ragged edge,” Carey said. “Often, these initial changes are made without the captain being included. There are even instances of managers promising expedited clearance of a taxi route if crews accept the flight plan.”

    Carey reminded that it is their decision whether to undertake flight plans that potentially approach flight operation safety margins. “This erosion of the safety margin cannot be tolerated,” Carey said.

    American spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said it is always the case that “captains approve the flying they do. When a flight plan comes through, pilots sign off on it.” In no way does the airline question captain’s authority regarding flight planning, Mohr said.

    Carey urged pilots to carefully consider whether they should comply when they are asked or pressured to voluntarily extend duty times. In general, domestic pilots are expected to fly up to nine hours a day and to be on duty 14 to 16 hours a day.

    “APA has received an increasing number of reports detailing crew scheduling and tracking representatives employing pilot-pushing techniques when dealing with duty-time limits,” Carey said.

    “FAA regulations are clear,” he said. “It is your call.”