DALLAS (AP) — The pilots' union president said Thursday that American Airlines is reducing its safety margin by "manipulating" flight plans with tactics that include faster speeds.
The union official suggested that American is trying to avoid canceling flights when crews push the limits of their legally allowed work shifts.
American did not respond directly to the union leader's claims. A spokesman said the airline takes safety and regulations seriously.
Dan Carey, who just started a three-year term as president of the Allied Pilots Association, said in a note to members that pilots were reporting pressure to approve faster flight plans.
Federal rules generally limit airline pilots to shifts of nine to 14 hours, depending on when the pilot's work day started and the number of flights. They can exceed their limit for unexpected delays such as bad weather, but they can't take off if they know they won't complete the flight under the limit.
The rules were designed to prevent accidents caused by fatigue. They were adopted after a Colgan Air flight for Continental Airlines crashed in 2009, killing 50 people.
When crews don't have enough time left in their shift to complete a flight, the airline must find replacement pilots or cancel the flight. Either option angers customers and can cause later flights to be delayed or canceled.
In the latest government figures, for May, American trailed Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines in on-time arrivals and had a higher cancellation rate.
Earlier this month, Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom outlined steps American was taking to operate on schedule during the busy summer season. He told employees in a memo that planners and pilots would "utilize 'speed up' flight plans to reduce delays involving crew duty times" on "critical flights."
Carey said managers have been directing pilots to redraw flight plans to keep their shifts legal by insisting on faster speeds that are "nearing aircraft limitations," even if routes go through turbulence, which usually forces pilots to slow down.
"These last-minute manipulations are used to make a flight appear legal when in reality it's not or is, at best, on the ragged edge," Carey said. He said the actions caused an "erosion of the safety margin."
The spokesman for American Airlines Group Inc., Joshua Freed, said "We take safety very seriously and we are absolutely committed to working together with our pilots and all other employees."
Robert Mann, a longtime aviation consultant and former American Airlines executive, said airlines have long used quicker flight plans to catch up when they fall behind schedule, "and it's done safely."
But, Mann added, he understood the union's concern — pilots could face sanctions if they signed an unrealistic flight plan and then an accident occurred.