American Airlines says it will furlough off up to 175 pilots beginning next month because it has too many pilots after reducing its flight schedule.
American said Friday it sent notices to 80 pilots that they will lose their jobs at the end of February. Officials said there could be a second round of furloughs in the spring.
Members of the Allied Pilots Association said the move could be devastating.
"The volatility in the airline industry is causing a lot of very talented pilots to stay away from this career field," said First Officer Scott Shankland, of the pilots union.
The airline cut passenger-carrying capacity 7.2 percent in 2009 as it struggled with a downturn in travel and lost $1.49 billion. Airlines cut capacity by eliminating flights and using smaller planes with fewer seats.
American spokeswoman Missy Latham said the company would furlough up to 175 pilots -- about 2 percent of its 7,800 pilots -- in the first half of the year. She said the company has too many pilots after reducing flights and experiencing less employee attrition than expected.
The company said it already has about 1,800 pilots on furlough. They were laid off but retain rehiring rights by seniority.
Allied Pilots Association spokesman Gregg Overman said the latest furloughs were "just another indication of the concessions our pilots have made since 2003," when the airline's unions agreed to wage cuts to save the company from bankruptcy.
Overman disputed American's claim of a pilot surplus, saying the airline is "pretty tightly manned."
Shankland agreed, saying he is concerned about the next peak traveling season.
"Pilot fatigue is a huge issue in the industry right now, because pilots are working so hard, but yet the airline comes to us and says we're overmanned," he said.
The union and the company said they were discussing steps to limit furloughs, which Overman said could include early-retirement incentives.
Overman said a recent change in federal law that allowed pilots to work past age 60 could be resulting in fewer retirements.
Latham said the company and union moved up the first 80 furloughs by one day into February to make those pilots eligible for subsidized health insurance. People who lose their jobs on or before Feb. 28 can continue to buy health insurance through their former employer, with the government paying 65 percent of the cost.
This week, American parent AMR Corp. reported a $344 million loss for the fourth quarter. The company has lost $3.59 billion in the past two years.
A statement released by American Airlines said the following:
American announced today the unfortunate need to furlough up to 175 of our pilots in the first half of 2010, beginning at the end of February. The impact of the economy and reduction in capacity over the last 18 months, coupled with lower than expected pilot attrition, has resulted in a pilot surplus. This was a painful but necessary decision, as this staffing adjustment will better align the size of our pilot organization with the size of our current operation. The company has been working with the Allied Pilots Association to develop possible furlough mitigation solutions to ease this transition and will continue to do so. We are also pleased that we were able to work with the APA to move up the furlough date by one day to achieve eligibility for subsidized COBRA medical benefits for the first group of furloughed pilots. American values and respects the professionalism, commitment and contributions of our pilots and regrets having to make this difficult decision.
NBCDFW's Scott Friedman and Kim Fischer contributed to this report.