Will American Airlines Cancel Flights? The Pilot Schedule Error Could Affect Your Holiday Plans

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Due to a major scheduling glitch, too many American Airlines pilots were able to take vacation at the same time this holiday season, while making it appear as if all flights were covered. Now, more than 15,000 already-booked American Airlines flights are currently without pilots, and it could cause major issues for your upcoming travel plans if you're going to and from the affected cities.

Once it realized the error, American Airlines began offering pilots 150 percent of their hourly pay to agree to work the dates they'd already requested off, American Airline spokesman Matt Miller told NBC. Otherwise, flights leaving from some of the country's biggest travel hubs, like New York City and Chicago, will have nobody to fly them. According to NBC, a lot of pilots booked heavy flight schedules in the beginning of December, but took off around the holidays because they were able to via the computer system.

"The airline is a 24/7 op," an American Airlines captain, Dennis Tajer, told NBC. "The system went from responsibly scheduling everybody to becoming Santa Claus to everyone. The computer said, 'Hey ya'll. You want the days off? You got it.'"

The airline is now scrambling to address the issue and says it expects to avoid cancellations this holiday season. "We have reserve pilots to help cover flying in December, and we are paying pilots who pick up certain open trips 150 percent of their hourly rate — as much as we are allowed to pay them per the contract," Miller said. "We will work with the APA to take care of our pilots and ensure we get our customers to where they need to go over the holidays."

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American Airlines notified the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents about 15,000 American Airlines pilots, about the scheduling bug last Friday. Remarkably, it isn't the first airline to make this mistake. In September, Ryanair cancelled around 2,000 flights because of pilot scheduling problems, and thousands of travelers were stranded.

How do you know if this latest glitch will affect you? At this point, American Airlines is trying to find a pilot for every flight. APA estimated that 15,000 flights could be affected between Dec. 17 and Dec. 31, based on data from the airline, Tajer told the Chicago Tribune.

Miller declined to confirm a number of affected flights, insisting that they intended to resolve the issue before travelers are affected. However, the flights that are currently without a captain, first officer, or both, will be leaving from major airports including Dallas-Fort Worth International, and airports in Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Charlotte, North Carolina, according to a company memo to the union. As the world's largest airline, American operates roughly 6,700 flights a day.

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Because of the computer bug, which the airline says it has fixed, American will need to rebuild its staffing schedule, which is what airlines usually do after major weather disruptions, John Cox, chief executive officer of consultant Safety Operating Systems, told the Tribune.

"It will be a challenge, but I don't think there will be mass cancellations," he said. "There's going to be a lot of midnight oil spent on it, but I think they'll get the vast majority of them covered one way or another."