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Despite Court Order, American Airline Pilots Lengthen Sickout

By James F. Peltz
Los Angeles Times

Nearly a quarter of American Airlines pilots defied a court order and their union leadership and extended their sickout to a sixth day Thursday, forcing the giant carrier to again cancel more than half of its 2,250 daily flights.

The pilots' action virtually guaranteed widespread disruption for thousands of travelers over Presidents' Day holiday weekend, when empty seats on other airlines will be in short supply.

More than 3,500 American flights have now been canceled, and more than 350,000 passengers inconvenienced, since the pilots began calling in sick last weekend in a labor dispute over the airline's recent purchase of the smaller carrier Reno Air.

The airline and the pilots' union continued their negotiations Thursday. But even if all of American's 9,200 pilots immediately reported to work, disrupted flight schedules, out-of-place aircraft and other lingering effects of the pilots' job action would likely lead to more canceled flights this weekend.

Meanwhile, frustrated American Airlines management marched back into court Thursday and asked that the union, the Allied Pilots Association, be found in contempt of court for failing to end the pilots' sickout, as ordered Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall in Dallas.

The APA, via its telephone hotline and Internet site, urged its members to follow the order. Union leaders "instruct all pilots to resume their normal working schedule and to otherwise comply" with the judge's ruling, the APA said in its daily Internet posting.

But American the primary unit of Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR Corp. said Thursday's sickout showed the union's effort wasn't enough. In seeking the contempt order, the airline said the union still hadn't "clearly communicated to its members to return to work, and that APA did not take reasonable steps to end the sickout."

American, its customers, its other employees and Kendall all "had expectations that things would get better, not worse," the airline said. A hearing on American's motion was set for Friday in Kendall's courtroom.

The motion "is ridiculous," said Drew Engelke, an American pilot and union spokesman in Fort Worth. "We've done everything humanly possible to be in compliance" with the judge's order, he said.

But about 2,400 pilots called in sick Thursday, up from 2,077 a day earlier, which forced American Airlines to cancel about 1,170 flights, 170 more flights than on Wednesday, said American spokesman John Hotard.

To be sure, pilots are often scheduled to work for three or four days at a time, so sick calls from earlier this week spilled over into cancellations Thursday. Even so, it's "obvious the pilots aren't following the judge's order," Hotard said.