American Airlines to use nonunion pilots for some test flights, drawing criticism

American Airlines Boeing 737-800 aircraft

Nicolas Economou | NurPhoto via Getty Images

American Airlines will no longer use unionized pilots to conduct certain test flights this month. A move that the Aviation Union argues would undermine the independence of these reviews.

As of Thursday, American will only hire non-union corporate pilots to test aircraft that are in long-term storage or that have recently undergone extensive maintenance before customers fly them. Previously, a group of specially trained union pilots carried out the duties together with non-union corporate pilots.

That union testing pilot group had shrunk from 24 in 2016 to around six when some left the union to become the company’s technical pilots, retired, or returned to airborne passengers, American said.

“Over the past five years American has switched our test flight to these experienced pilots and fleet experts to better cope with the unpredictability of test flights that are dictated by completion of maintenance and not on a set schedule,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Sarah Jantz .

But the Allied Pilots Association, which represents around 15,000 American pilots, is against the measure.

“The foundation of AA’s strong safety culture has been a commitment to ensuring that independent, protected, and intimidated pilots conduct these critical safety clearance flights versus management pilots who may have a conflict of interest,” said Eric Ferguson, captain of American Airlines and APA President said in a February 19 message to members. “Any step taken to crack this foundation will face the greatest opposition from APA.”

The union did not say that there were imminent or specific safety risks or that the procedures did not meet federal standards.

American said that its corporate pilots have already performed most of these flights and that they received the same specialized training as union test pilots.

“In April we will centralize this flying in accordance with the collective agreement and transfer it completely to our fleet captains and technical pilots,” said the American spokeswoman Jantz. “It is important that our expectations and standards do not change with this transition. We will continue to conduct maintenance-related flight reviews beyond FAA requirements with the same training and procedures and checklists.”

Americans said it was discussing with the union how they could involve their pilots in this type of flying. Union-represented airline pilots will continue to fly planes after being released from short-term camp before passengers fly on them.

Jantz said the number of test flights or the bar to meet them won’t change.

“All aircraft that are removed from storage must be serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s maintenance manual and applicable FAA regulations and airworthiness guidelines,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in a statement.

American said Monday that it plans to deploy most of the planes it parked during the pandemic in the second quarter to meet rising demand for travel.

The Allied Pilots Association has previously raised concerns about the flight test program, including to the Transportation Department’s watchdog in 2017, claiming there is a “culture of security complaint suppression”.

In July 2018, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation said it had conducted an audit that found that a Federal Aviation Administration inspector had “no objectivity” in his review of the US security program.

The FAA said it had completed six of the watchdog’s seven recommendations, except for one, requiring changes to be made to how inspectors assess objectivity to include potential issues such as the length of time they check the same airline. The FAA requested an extension through August.

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