Delta And United Contracts Prohibit Single Pilot Cockpits. American’s Doesn’t.

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In one substantial way, American Airlines’ contract with its pilots union differs from the contracts at Delta and United. American’s contract does not specify that its airplanes will be operated with two pilots in the cockpit.

The issue is important as Airbus, now the world’s dominant aircraft manufacturer, pushes efforts to move towards single pilot operation. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, known as EASA, is studying extended minimum crew operation, known as eMCO.

The Delta contract with the Air Line Pilots Association specifies that “No aircraft performing company flying will operate with fewer than two pilots,” while the United ALPA contract says the carrier can’t operate flights “unless the minimum crew on such aircraft consists of two pilots from the United pilot seniority list on the aircraft flight deck.”

Delta’s commitment was underscored in November, when CEO Ed Bastian told CNN that “I will never get on a plane unless there’s two Delta pilots, at least two Delta pilots.”

However, American’s contract with the Allied Pilots Association does not specify a commitment to a two-pilot cockpit. Questioned about the issue on Thursday, an American spokeswoman responded, “FAA regulations require two pilots. We do and will always comply with those rules.”

APA spokesman Dennis Tajer said Friday the statement is inadequate because it defaults to the Federal Aviation Administration. “Unlike United and Delta, who said that ‘no matter what the law says, we will fly with two pilots,’ American sets a condition,” Tajer said. “They are saying, ‘Whatever the FAA says is the minimum, that’s where we will go.”

In contract talks in 2023, American would not commit to putting single pilot language in the contract, Tajer said. “The contract refers several times to two pilots in the cockpit, and we believe that our contract prohibits just one pilot in the cockpit, but management would not commit to that with modern, updated, ironclad language. They should remove that uncertainty.”

ALPA President Jason Ambrosi said Thursday that a reduction from one to two pilots in an aircraft diminishes safety with an overreliance on technology. “Automation can fail,” he said. “It regularly has problems. Then pilots have to intervene.”

Referring to contract language prohibiting single pilot cockpits, Ambrosi said ALPA “is making it an absolute priority to put this language in our agreements.” He said nine carriers, including Alaska, Hawaiian and JetBlue as well as Delta and United, have the contract language, and “As we move forward in bargaining, we will focus on assuring that the language is in there” at other carriers.

Why isn’t the language in the American contract?

“We don’t represent those pilots,” Ambrosi said. “It would be nice if they would prioritize some of these things. We could use some help from other entities out there to advance the ball.” Some American pilots are seeking to have ALPA replace APA to represent the carrier’s 16,000 pilots.

Said Tajer, “On this critical safety issue, Delta and United managements have chosen to lead while American management chooses to make our airline an outlier.”

The two principal aircraft manufacturers on Thursday provided statements on their interest in single pilot operations.

“Airbus will always do the safest thing,” said spokeswoman Kristi Tucker. “For the foreseeable future this means well-rested and competent human pilots at the heart of a robust and flexible system, including appropriate automation. As we do all of this, we are in constant dialogue with our customers and the authorities.

“We are constantly looking for ways to improve and advance our range of products to deliver higher levels of safety efficiency and performance,” Tucker said. “We believe that pilots will remain at the heart of operations and that automation can play a crucial role by assisting them in the cockpit and reducing workload.”

A Boeing
spokesman said, “As industry increasingly adopts autonomous capabilities, Boeing will work with customers and regulators to ensure their safe integration. While Boeing has participated in industry discussions, we refer you to aviation regulators regarding single-pilot operations.”

Ambrosi said Airbus is lobbying EASA for single pilot operations, including some portion of transatlantic flying. “That puts pressure on our airline industry,” he said. “Obviously, the U.S. is the number one leader in aviation safety, and ALPA has led the charge to battle this on a global scale” by partnering with European pilot unions. He said the term eMCO for extended minimum crew operations is intended to obfuscate by not including the words “single pilot.”

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