American Airlines, pilots resume labor talks amid turmoil

Wed Oct 3, 2012 7:45pm EDT

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(Reuters) - American Airlines and its pilots union resumed contract talks Wednesday, but other problems continued to beset the bankrupt airline.

A cockpit warning light caused an American flight to return to an airport shortly after takeoff Tuesday, a court said a union organizing drive at the airline could go forward and flight delays brought more customer complaints.

"I will never ride on American Airlines ever again," said Tony Palm, who was stranded when a connecting flight on American from Chicago to New York's LaGuardia airport was canceled last month.

Palm, a recruiter for a small defense contractor who lives in northern Virginia, said he had to wait three hours but eventually was able to get to New York on a flight with United Airlines.

Palm's frustration was shared by a growing number of customers who have suffered as the airline's on-time performance has dropped in recent weeks.

"American has delayed close to 2 million people in the last couple of weeks, and they've canceled flights for 150,000 people," said Blake Fleetwood, president of CookTravel.net, an online travel agency. "That has an effect."

The cockpit warning light incident, which showed a possible problem with the landing gear, occurred on a flight from Dallas to St. Louis. The flight made an emergency landing and the passengers got on a different plane.

The incident was one of six in recent days at the airline. In three cases, seats came loose during flights and in one instance a flight from Boston to Miami diverted to New York. Two cases involved medical emergencies, not equipment problems, American said.

Mary Frances Fagan, a spokeswoman for American, said safety is the airline's top priority. "We take the safest course of action."

Fleetwood said some passengers have asked to be booked away from American Airlines flights. It's unclear how widespread the concern is, but postings on Twitter gave some idea of the concerns.

"Every single American Airlines flight out of Las Vegas is delayed!" said one tweet. "Dear American Airlines: Thanks for changing my flight without telling me. I know you don't agree, but some of us have schedules we try to keep," said another.

"American Airlines now charging passengers a $35 unbolted seat fee," joked a third.

The tweet referred to three separate incidents in which seats in American flights came unbolted from the floor, prompting an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and inspection of eight other jets.

The loose seats on three American flights have added to concerns about the airline. American said the problems were related to the fixtures that attach the seats to tracks on the floor.

The Federal Aviation Administration sent inspectors to New York to physically inspect the American Airlines planes. The FAA inspectors are also visiting the maintenance facilities where work was done, said Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesperson.

Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, a U.S.-based airline passenger rights group, said the loose seats incident could have been the result of sabotage by upset union workers.

The airline has suggested that pilots may be behind the rise in reports of mechanical issues. The pilots union has denied calling any work action at American Airlines.

It says pilots have been documenting "serious maintenance-related issues" that must be reported under law.

AMID TURMOIL, TALKS RESUME

Wednesday's good news was that the airline had resumed talks with the pilot's union to resolve a long-running labor dispute. Tom Hoban, a spokesman for the pilots union, said the pilots wanted an "industry standard" contract on par with those at rivals Delta Air Lines and United Continental.

The union, which Wednesday concluded polling its members on a strike authorization vote, chose to keep the results secret. The 10,000 pilots were widely expected to approve the walkout.

American spokesman Bruce Hicks confirmed that negotiating teams for American and the Allied Pilots Association resumed meeting on Wednesday.

The pilots are the only major work group at American that has not agreed on contract concessions since the airline filed for bankruptcy in November last year, and pilots rejected the company's last offer in August.

The carrier won permission from a U.S. bankruptcy court judge to scrap its contracts with the pilots union last month.

"To demonstrate our commitment to reaching a consensual agreement and to promote a constructive environment for expedited negotiations, the company will defer implementing in October certain items that would otherwise impact pilot pay," Hicks added in a statement. "It is time to reach an agreement, and we wanted to foster the right environment to resume negotiations."

Separately, the airline lost a court effort to block a union from organizing during its bankruptcy. The decision Wednesday by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The court reversed an earlier decision by District Judge Terry Means in Fort Worth, Texas, that blocked the agents' union election from going forward.

The Communications Workers of America, which is seeking to represent the agents, welcomed the appellate court's ruling and said in a statement the agents had been prevented from a voting on whether to organize "for far too long."

Representatives for American Airlines had no immediate comment. The CWA also represents reporters at Reuters News.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta and Jim Wolf in Washington; Editing by Alwyn Scott, Bernard Orr)

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