Is it safe to fly on American Airlines?

Note: I’m featuring a video at the top of each post in which I’ll offer advice or commentary related to the story. Please let me know what you think, and sign up for my channel. You’ll get a preview of the next post.

As American Airlines pilots formed picket lines at airports across the country last week and the nation’s third-largest air carrier canceled hundreds of flights, David Ludt made the difficult decision to redeem all of his AAdvantage miles for a flight to Europe next year.

Now he’s worried that there might not be a next year. Like others with plans to fly on American, Ludt fears for the airline’s future, which could include downsizing or a merger with another carrier.

“What guarantee do I have that my departure and return dates will be the same as the dates of my originally booked flights?” asks Ludt, a high school teacher from Shrewsbury, Mass. “This is important to know before I book any nonrefundable hotel accommodations in London and Venice.”

American, which has been flying under bankruptcy protection since November, is the latest carrier to deal with labor trouble: in this case, pilots calling in sick or slowing operations by filing additional maintenance reports, allegedly in retaliation against the carrier’s cost-cutting measures.

The pilots deny that they are engaged in a slowdown.

Fortunately, a combination of contracts, federal regulations and airline policies offer some protection for passengers in the event of an operational delay. But they can’t cover every kind of loss that a late or canceled flight can generate.

For Ludt, there’s good news and bad news. American probably will get him to London. However, it might not be when he expected to fly, and the airline won’t compensate him for missed vacation days or losses due to nonrefundable hotel reservations.

American’s problems are hardly unique. This month, Lufthansa canceled about half of its scheduled 1,800 flights because of a one-day work stoppage. In August, United Airlines narrowly averted a work stoppage by pilots who were upset at the lack of progress on negotiating a new contract. And earlier this year, Air Canada endured numerous cancellations as a result of labor trouble.

Related story:   Forecast: higher gas prices dent travel plans

If your upcoming American flight is canceled, it might be difficult to tell whether the cause was a work stoppage or a planned reduction. The airline was on track to operate thousands of fewer flights this month than in August, but that was also true for last year’s flight totals.

American says it is doing its best to minimize the impact to passengers. During the first week of the delays, the carrier canceled 300 flights, which allowed the company to reschedule passengers in advance. Through October, American thinned its flight schedule by between 1 and 2 percent.

“We have increased staffing in other areas to assist in re-accommodating customers and are reaching out to customers proactively to notify them of the options available and the ability to stand by for earlier flights at no charge,” says American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Sanderson.

Yet American’s assurances can’t answer every passenger concern. Take Susan Schwartz Jones, the chief executive of a biotechnology firm in Seattle. She and her husband saved 3.5 million American Airlines miles for the vacation of a lifetime, and she’s concerned that American’s days as an independent carrier might be numbered as it reportedly mulls a merger with US Airways.

“Needless to say,” she says, “we are very worried.”

Should she cash in the miles now or wait to take the perfect getaway?

Historically, miles don’t retain their value, so the sooner you use them, the likelier you are to get their full value, such as it is. And when an airline is flying the Chapter 11 skies, the depreciation of mileage awards comes into sharp focus. Experts say Jones should burn the miles now – advice American is likely to agree with, since it doesn’t benefit from having billions of unredeemed airline miles on its balance sheets.

Related story:   What's wrong with the TSA?

What concerns most passengers is the uncertainty of not knowing whether a flight will leave as scheduled during a work stoppage, and what happens if it doesn’t.

American says it is offering three options if your flight is delayed more than two hours during its labor problems. You can receive a full refund, either of your fare or, if you paid using miles, of your frequent flier miles. It will rebook you on another airline, if there’s room. Or you can change your ticket to a future American flight at no charge, meaning that both your change fee and any fare differential will be waived.

The carrier isn’t required to do most of that, at least under federal law. As a matter of policy, most airlines will rebook you on their first flight to your destination on which space is available, at no additional charge, when they cancel a flight.

If you’d rather not fly, the airline must refund your ticket or redeposit the miles you used to buy your ticket. However, federal regulations don’t require an airline to transfer you to another carrier at its expense, also known as “endorsing” your ticket to another airline.

For most travelers with plans to travel during the upcoming holiday season, it isn’t a matter of what American will – or should – do. It’s more a matter of what steps they can take now, given the uncertainty and high load factors, to make sure their upcoming flight goes smoothly.

“Should I be proactive, or just wait and be reactive in the event this sick-out actually happens when I’m supposed to fly?” asks Marilyn Daggett, who is flying from Phoenix to Pittsburgh for a family wedding. “Or am I pretty much relegated to rebooking on a competitor, if I can find a decent price, and eating the original tickets?”

Related story:   Where is the refund American Airlines promised me five business days ago?

For Daggett, a wait-and-see approach might work, as long as she has enough time to get to the wedding. Business travelers who absolutely must be at their destination by a certain time often take a different tack, booking an expensive, fully refundable ticket as a backup, just in case their actual flight doesn’t leave as scheduled. Then, if they leave as planned, they simply ask for a refund on the second ticket.

Maybe the best way to prepare for a flight on any airline that’s affected by a labor problem is to know your rights before you leave.

Those are outlined on American Airlines’ Web site and in its terms and conditions, also known as its “contract of carriage,” which can also be found online.

An overview of your rights under federal regulations is on the Transportation Department’s Web site.

And if none of those solves your problem, you can always do what U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did when his American flight to Washington was delayed and he groused about it on Twitter, opening with the observation that “This has not been the best week in American Airlines history.” The online tirade yielded something many passengers say is in short supply when airlines suffer a work stoppage: an apology.

Update (Oct. 2): Daggett reports that her American flight went better than expected. She writes,

I received a phone call from American Airlines telling me my flight was ‘overbooked’ and asking if I would be willing to change the departure time for the first leg of my outbound flight.

When I agreed, I was given an automatic upgrade to First Class (Whoo-Hoo!) for my second leg from DFW to PIT. And because I am an AAdvantage member I did not have to pay any baggage fees both ways.

Anyway, long story short, it was a pleasant experience – both outbound and inbound.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • must be carefully now, hope never had the same experience with airlines

  • TonyA_says

    Wonder what all those ex United MP loyalists who moved to AAdvantage feel now? Are they thinking of going back to UA? If one is on an AA flight to Europe, perhaps moving to an AA codeshare of British Air or Iberia will better. To Asia, codeshare on JAL or Cathay Pacific.

  • SoBeSparky

    As American Airlines pilots follow the footsteps of their former union brothers at Eastern Airlines, they may end up killing their own jobs.  Once the pilots lose all professionalism by creating doubts in the minds of the flyers, then the downward spiral of diminishing bookings can result.  It then can become a self-fulling prophecy of fewer flights, lower yields and fewer pilots.  

    There is no better way to force AA into liquidation than to have them lose more money while in bankruptcy protection.  The pilots think they can get a better deal at US Airways?  Serious pilot labor issues as a result of the combination of America West and US Airways seven years ago still have not been resolved.  Seven years later, no labor peace among US Airways pilots!  (Meanwhile, US Airways flight attendants just rejected a new unified contract.  It would have combined contracts, again, seven years after the merger!)

    I watched Eastern decline and fail, even though I crossed the picket lines.  Now this unsanctioned slowdown can achieve the same result, the departure of a once-proud name among America’s airlines.  Sayonara pilots.

  • commentfromme

    cash in those points

  • As someone who mediates disputes for a living, I am hoping for a quick resolution to this disagreement. No one wants AA to liquidate.

  • emanon256

    I’m on an AA flight tomorrow because I am so sick of UA.  Drat!

  • Jeff Shelby

    I’m flying them several times a month right now. It’s a matter of price, as I’m flying out of DFW and they simply offer the best prices. I haven’t experienced any cancellations yet, but the delays have been frustrating. To see pilots show up after the entire plane has been loaded is really odd. It seems very clearly planned. The other noticeable difference is strange, as well. On several flights – and I heard this from a family member on a different American flight, as well – the pilots are not speaking to the passengers. They don’t get on the P.A. at all during the course of the flight. All instruction and information is given by the flight attendants. Not sure what the point of that is. 

  • Eeek! American has always treated me well. My parents live outside of Dallas, so that’s what I fly whenever I visit them. I hope my miles are safe! Otherwise, I’m going to have to find somewhere frivolous to fly. Real quick.

  • SoBeSparky

    I agree.  This dispute is long standing and apparently intractable, though.  If people with a specific occupational skill set cannot see the reality of wages and work rules in their field, then history repeats.

  • AAmerican1

    I still fly them with no apprehension, have a flight this Tuesday. All the flights have been oversold so it appears that there are many others who feel comfortable flying them as well. 

  • sirwired

     Or, the flights are oversold because they are packed with people from earlier cancelled flights and/or missed connections.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Uhhh… what?

  • TonyA_says

    I think you are simply describing a race to the bottom. Classic airlines use bankruptcy laws to get rid of obligations to employees, retirees, suppliers, and creditors. Then they are reborn as a low cost carrier. Meantime, their employees who are saddled with upside down mortgages and with consumer debt and school loans (for their children) are relying on the same income stream and cannot avail of similar actions to get rid of their obligations. Justice???

    If that is the future for 99% of Americans (wage earners), then mediation might be too weak a solution.

  • cjr001

    Christopher, the fact that you’ve used the word liquidate with AA shows how serious the problem is, and why I wouldn’t recommend anybody fly them right now.

    Does not flying them contribute to AA’s plight? Yes. But travelers have to worry about themselves first; AA certainly isn’t going to care about them if they go belly up.

  • SoBeSparky

    Another viewpoint is that the airline must shed costs to remain competitive or simply go into oblivion.   

    American Airlines is the last legacy domestic airline to enter into bankruptcy to reduce labor costs.  They were the highest costs in the USA.  So we should we keep AA alive for the sake of the employees (who will not accept today’s economic realities) at the expense of the bankers, bond holders and shareholders?  Should we force the financial markets to lose money by feeding funds into the losing moneypit called AA?  Or should the taxpayer bail them out?  Absurd.Or do we make AA merge with an airline ranking dead last in customer satisfaction of all legacy airlines (JD Power and Consumer Reports) which has a long-time record of labor unrest and unresolved labor contracts?

    So why blame economic realities on the airline when it is the consumer who will not pay a higher price?  All other domestic airlines operate with lower labor costs and are able to make a profit with low fares.

    The economic reality is your next door neighbor, and maybe even you, will be to blame for the unemployed AA employees when the airline cannot get costs in line with marketplace fares.  You will not pay more expensive fares for the higher paid AA pilots with the most restrictive work rules in the nation.  The consumer dictates your so-called race to the bottom.  One punishment for a continuously noncompetitive airline is liquidation with all employees losing their jobs.  And like the Eastern Airlines employees of many years ago, they will be unfairly labelled as uncooperative, high-cost, and inflexible.  Fewer than you imagine will find jobs in the airline industry (an unspoken “graylist”), causing a far greater labor dislocation than you can imagine.  

    Let the marketplace work, and let AA try to reorganize as a profitable airline before it is too late.  The potential alternative outcomes to a labor agreement with slightly lower wages and more flexible work rules are too extreme for all involved.

    Finally, if the pilots undercut the core of an airline’s reputation, reliability and safety, then they have only themselves to blame when they are unable to maintain their prior standard of living as AA pilots. 

  • MarkKelling

    You cannot book two tickets on the same airline but different flights for the same day going between the same points.  The airlines will cancel the lower cost ticket when they discover this.  So the advice to purchase a full fare refundable backup ticket should also state the backup ticket must be on a separate airline preferably one that is not part of an alliance or code share with your first choice of airline.  Most frequent flyers will know this, but it doesn’t hurt to be absolutely clear.

  • TonyA_says

    Do you have any evidence that AA pilots and crew are paid a lot more than UA, WN, DL, FX or 5X pilots to cause AA such an unusual burden?
    Has WN, FX, 5X declared bankruptcy ever? Their pilots are also unionized. Maybe you need to look at the other factors.

  • emanon256

    My thought too.

  • SoBeSparky

    There are too many sources to mention.  Here is a reference from cnn money, certainly not a shill for the airlines:

    To say pilots are unionized in one company and also in another is totally irrelevant.   Every airline labor contract is different.  There are no industry standards, like there used to be in the auto and steel industries in the 1970s. 

    You could have looked this up and not speculated on “other factors.”  You also could have done some meaningful research on work rules going back decades in legacy airline contracts, as opposed to the LCCs, to discover why certain airlines never went through bankruptcy.  

    If you very carefully look at the total picture at this site, you will see what AA is up against:

    Any analysis must always combine wages/salaries with benefits, which equals total labor burden or “total pay.”  (So many charts are irrelevant.)  Some meaningful highlights: unit costs per available seat mile (Chart 20) are highest for AA as is the total labor cost per ASM (Chart 23).  

    Chart 27, Wage/Benefit % of operating revenue, leads us to the inescapable conclusion shown in Chart 31.  American has the highest benefits per employee.  Hence the cnn money article.

    All the “wage/salary” stats on other charts are  meaningless for this discussion.  And none of these charts really reflect the restrictive work rules at AA which mandate the number of commuter craft allowed to fly, among other completely irrelevant contract terms.   If AA cannot subcontract feeder routes into its hubs, how it is going to compete with larger Delta and United which can?

    I suggest you follow the bankruptcy court proceedings where the judge pretty much reached the same conclusions.  AA simply cannot survive with the former contracts in place.  A new total labor cost structure with new work rules are essential to the survival of American Airlines.  

    But if you a group of unrealistic employees determined to poison the marketplace with slowdowns, sick outs and long maintenance delays for a cracked coffee pot and a single passenger reading light not working, then reaching a labor agreement becomes meaningless.  With far fewer customers, AA cannot make a profit at any total labor cost level and any set of work rules.

  • SoBeSparky

    I am still flying them, too.  Flew last week to Seattle.  This week I head to LAX.  Sure the delays are a pain, but Miami needs a healthy American Airlines.  This is not just about frequent flyer miles or blind loyalty, but a thriving local economy of millions (MIA-FLL) to be able to support their families and send their kids to college.

  • Michelle C

    I had to vote yes.. I have 3 tickets for next month.  I’m expecting to deal with a lot of airline BS.

  • BMG4ME

    A downsizing or a merger is not the end.  It’s… a downsizing or a merger.

  • I’m flying AA from RDU to LGA in just under three weeks. Should I try and book another flight with a different carrier, or wait and hope for the best? I’m an Australian exchange student so I had no idea that AA was in this turmoil when I booked!

  • SoBeSparky

    Book early flight, so if your flight is cancelled, there is a later flight available. Unless you must get there at a certain “drop dead” time, don’t worry. You’ll get there, but maybe late.

  • The safety question just got bigger with the latest report that AAL has discovered that on several AC, rows of seats have been unbolted from the floor. This is sabotage and it comes from within. One of the many problems of the airline business today is horrendously arrogant and incompetent management, enraged employees and unions operating under a 1930 ethos that thinks this is justified. I was a flight attendant at Pan Am in the 70s and was a union rep. Later, I was a manager. I saw firsthand the problems from both sides.At the end, Pan Am’s employees fought hard to stay aloft but the rot had gone too deep. At least we did not spirail down in a frenzy of self destruction as American is doing..

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.