Is American Airlines charting the right course to fewer flight delays?

American Airlines wants pilots to speed up flights - but are they sacrificing safety?

Jim Young/REUTERS/File
Travelers line up at an American Airlines ticket counter at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois, in 2014.

If you're flying American Airlines, your pilot may be rushing to get there faster, according to allegations by the president of the Allied Pilot Association, and pushing the boundaries of safety, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Allegations that American Airlines managers are encouraging pilots to redraw flight plans and to push aircraft to their limits in order to avoid flight delays are raising concerns, despite the airline's insistence that safety is their No. 1 priority.

“This initiative has the potential to place our licenses and,” said Mr. Carey in a note to pilots, USA Today reported, “more importantly, our passengers at an increased risk."

Airlines such as American lose money when flights are not on time, or if pilots go over the allowable federal work shift hours. According to federal regulations, pilots are only allowed to work between nine and 14 hours at a time, depending on a number of factors, including how many flights a pilot is responsible for each day.

If flying the last scheduled flight in their day means that pilots will go over the legal shift limit, airlines are forced to bring in new pilots or cancel flights, leading to delays. American Airlines has struggled in recent years to keep its flights on time.

In 2015, American Airlines ranked seventh out 10 North American airlines in terms of on time performance, with just over 80 percent of American flights arriving and departing on time.

Although American says that it is invested in the safety of both pilots and passengers, critics such as Carey say that rushing flights can be dangerous.

According to Carey, "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."

Federal limits on pilot shifts went into place following the 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 to Buffalo, N.Y. The crash investigation showed that pilot fatigue likely played a role in the crash, NPR reported. Like many pilots with regional airlines, First Officer Rebecca Shaw said she made too little money to live near Colgan Air’s Newark hub, and instead saved money by commuting (via airlines) from her parents’ home near Seattle on the day of the flight. The pilot of the Colgan Air flight flew from his home in Florida and slept in the crew lounge the night before reporting to work.  

More recent airline surveys found that nine out of 10 pilots have at one point dozed off in the cockpit. In May, ABC News reported that NASA statistics indicate that up to 20 percent of airplane crashes are caused by pilot fatigue.

Critics like Carey are concerned that American’s recent request that pilots speed up flight plans will sacrifice safety standards.

"We take safety very seriously,” said American Airlines Group spokesman Joshua Freed, “and we are absolutely committed to working together with our pilots and all other employees."

Delays may be set to get worse, as more people rely on airlines for transportation, Bloomberg News reported. Boeing released a report this week predicting that airlines will need to hire 617,000 new pilots by 2035, in order to handle the rising number of airline passengers.

While American Airlines hopes to improve its on time arrivals and departures, other airlines and flight hubs are also taking steps to improve their efficiency. Chicago’s O’Hare airport recently announced expansion plans, complete with a terminal upgrade, in order to expand O’Hare’s capacity and reduce chronic delays, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

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