American Airlines pilots want customers to know how bad things have gotten

Business travel is slowly returning. But when airline employees speak out, big problems emerge.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Flying into trouble?

Screenshot by ZDNet

I'm very excited.

Airline bookings are booming. Business travel is slowly coming back too, say the airlines.

Except, the more I think about it, I believe that the airline business is back, but the travel part may still be something of a problem.

You see, as airlines boast of recovery, they're also cancelling quite a lot of flights. Or, as United Airlines recently announced, turning some non-stop flights into one-stops.

Hotel? What hotel?

Which all leads me to the pilots at American Airlines.

They're suggesting that things are crumbling somewhat. No, they're not doing it with the odd tweet here and the odd press release there.

Instead, the pilots union created a little film that reveals what they see as their own airline's great mess.

An experienced male pilot meets up with the younger female co-pilot who'll be joining him in the cockpit.

She's enthusiastic. He's as cheerful as your average Oakland A's fan.

Also: Southwest Airlines has excellent news for everyone (except Bill Gates)

"Scheduling called you yet?" he snorts.

It seems they hadn't. The pilot informs his co-pilot: "Well, we've got a schedule change." This, he says, will work them both into their days off.

It's ruined his family's plans. His kids have got used to "this sort of thing."

"By the way," says the newer pilot. "Do we have a hotel assignment yet?"

"No, we're going to have to call the hotel desk ourselves," says Captain Weary.

He continues: "It didn't used to be this way, and it should never have gotten to this point."

For his climax, he offers: "Our passengers deserve better. So do we."

Ticketing problems? No, picketing problems.

That doesn't quite give the impression of a business that's soaring. Moreover, the airline's pilots are continuing to stage pickets at various airports. Informational picketing, they call it.

Naturally, I asked American for its views, and it seemed to offer a slight shrug of the shoulders.

A spokesperson told me: "American Airline pilots participate in informational picketing periodically, which isn't out of the ordinary and has no impact on our operation."

There was also a conciliatory aspect, as the spokesperson added: "We are jointly committed with APA [the pilots' union] to ongoing Section 6 bargaining focused on reaching an agreement that will benefit our pilots and our operation."

But the American pilots aren't alone. Delta's pilots have begun picketing. This is beginning to sound less informational and more protesty.

As the union leader, Capt. Evan Baach told WSB-TV: "Our pilots are tired. They are frustrated with their schedules."

He added a troubling accusation about his airline too: "The company is scheduling more flights than they have pilots to fly them. We're concerned there's not enough buffer there."

Though American Airline pilots have led the way with their aggressive stance, I'd hate to leave Southwest Airlines out of the conversation.

Southwest admits it's having trouble hiring people.

Business trip? Maybe not.

Those with memories that stretch beyond last week may remember that the minute the pandemic hit, airlines offered buyouts, early retirement and even fired staff.

Now, as business begins to increase, they don't have enough people to fly the planes and pour the drinks.

Which can only mean one thing for travelers -- especially those finally venturing out on business.

More flights will get cancelled. Fares will increase, especially with the rise in oil prices. And more CFOs will decide that their companies just aren't ready for this business travel thing.

Also: Delta Air Lines just admitted to a serious problem, so I tried its latest solution

Moreover, many of those working from home don't now live in big cities such as LA, New York, Seattle or San Francisco. If they were to go on a business trip, they'd rather use a smaller, more local airport. But many airlines are canceling enormous numbers of flights from precisely these smaller airports.

And now the pilots are implying there are impending safety issues involved.

Some might be tempted to have sympathy with the airlines. They might conclude that it's hard to survive in difficult times, so of course, the airlines had to shed employees. 

But others might sniff that, instead of investing in their own people and training infrastructures, airlines have often been too busy with share buybacks and enriching their senior executives.

Moreover, many people's fundamental attitude to work has changed over the last two years. It isn't merely about the Great Resignation. It's about looking at what a particular job really is and what a particular company really is.

I fear that many -- especially at the flight attendant side of things -- have taken a look and not really liked what they've seen. Who wants to deal with some recalcitrant passenger who won't wear a mask?

And how many aspiring pilots may look at the American Airlines pilots' film and think: "Yeah, it sounds like being a pilot isn't so much fun anymore."?

Editorial standards