(AP) The recent spike in Northwest Airlines flight cancelations should ease next week as pilots who are limited to flying 90 hours a month return, but a pilots' union spokesman said the problem won't go away until the airline hires more pilots.
Eagan-based Northwest Airlines Corp. has seen a surge in cancelations since last Friday. It has blamed air traffic control restrictions, severe weather earlier this month that required pilots to rack up more time and an unusually high number of pilots calling in sick.
But the Northwest branch of the Air Line Pilots Association contends the underlying problem is that the airline simply doesn't have enough pilots to fly its full schedule anymore.
As of 6 p.m. CDT Thursday, Northwest had canceled 129 flights for the day, according to FlightStats.com, a Web site that tracks how carriers perform. Since Friday, according to FlightStats figures, Northwest has canceled more than 1,160 flights. Most were at Northwest's largest hubs: Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"On the same days that Northwest started having these significant problems network-wide, other comparable carriers didn't," said Meara McLaughlin, a vice president at Portland, Ore.-based FlightStats.
Northwest has been canceling between 10 percent and 15 percent of its scheduled flights since Friday, compared with a national average of about 2 percent, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said it just happens that this week it's Northwest's schedule that got snarled. Last week it was United Airlines, she said. "The fact is the system is strung too tightly," McLaughlin said.
Union spokesman Monty Montgomery denied that Northwest pilots are conducting any kind of job action such as a sick-out, as some observers have speculated. He said that if the number of pilots calling in sick is indeed up, it's likely because pilots are under more stress due to the higher number of hours they're required to work.
"We routinely fly 88 to 90 hours every month. Our pilots have been working at their personal limits, and it's very hard on our families because we're gone so much under this new contract," said Montgomery, an Airbus A320 captain.
Northwest said Thursday it's still trying to solve the problem.
"Northwest is working to remedy the situation and expects shortly to operate a normal summertime schedule," spokeswoman Tracy Carlson said. "We realize that the crew scheduling issues have presented travel problems for some customers, and we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this issue has caused."
Carlson said she had no further new information.
Under contract concessions Northwest pilots accepted last year, they can fly up to 90 hours per month, up from 80 hours previously. But Montgomery said that only counts time from when the plane is pushed back from the departure gate until it pulls up to the arrival gates.
When flight planning, preflight checks, postflight tasks and various delays are factored in, he said, it's not unusual for a pilot to put in a 12-hour day for five or six hours of flight time.
While Federal Aviation Administration rules allow pilots up to 100 hours of flight time per month, Montgomery said raising Northwest's cap to that level wouldn't be a solution because the FAA allows only 1,000 hours per year. A pilot flying 100-hour months would reach the limit in 10 months.
Northwest will regain some scheduling flexibility come Monday, July 1, when all the pilots who are pushing or have already hit their 90-hour caps for June will start a new clock, Montgomery said.
But he warned there's "certainly the potential" the problem will keep coming up month after month.
"We're willing to talk to the company about solutions, but there's not a lot of available slack in the system," he said.
Northwest currently has 5,247 pilots flying plus another 396 on furlough, compared with a peak of 6,581 pilots in July 2001, Montgomery said.
While it would help over the long run if furloughed pilots were called back, he said, over the short term there would be further complications because instructor pilots who are now flying scheduled flights would have to be pulled off them so they could retrain the returning pilots.
McLaughlin, of FlightStats, said airlines are flying their planes so full these days that missing a connection due to a canceled flight can delay a traveler for another day or two. She said passengers are naive if they just buy the cheapest ticket available; they need to check to see how often the specific flight they're considering gets canceled or delayed because some flights have a record of more problems than others.
"Travelers need to take responsibility for more intelligent buying decisions if they want to minimize their own inconvenience," she said.