American Airlines’ Operations Crisis And What It Means For You

Sep 20, 2012

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On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Scott McCartney who writes “The Middle Seat” column with the first line: “If you’re making travel plans for this fall, avoid American Airlines. American has become too unreliable.” You don’t need a decoder ring to get his point!

Pinpointing The Problem
So what brought on the strong words? As many of you no doubt have seen, read or heard about this week already, American has been having huge problems with its unions and flight delays that brought its on-time availability down to a miserable 48% in recent days, and an even further disheartening 39% of flights arriving on time on Monday with 29% of the total flights coming in excessively late.

With the recent delays and cancellations, looks like we won’t be seeing many of these planes taking off.

The article points out that many of American’s competitors didn’t seem to experience any similar issues, with United, Southwest and US Airways notching an 80% on-time record, and Delta and JetBlue with numbers around 90% according to FlightStats.

McCartney blames pilots and their union for the delays, claiming they have called in sick in large numbers, moved aircraft deliberately slowly and grounded flights for mechanical issues that wouldn’t normally cause delays. However, the union is strongly denying the charges, and one AA spokesperson told NPR’s Marketplace program that since the airline is under increased scrutiny in bankruptcy, pilots are being extra careful with operations and doing everything by the book so the airline comes off with as clean a record as possible. What’s the point, though, when over half your flights are coming in late and you can’t prove it’s for verifiable safety issues?

McCartney goes on to say that American flyers are in for more of the same and that American has announced it will be cutting back its fall schedule to increase flexibility with pilot schedules. However, there are probably more labor skirmishes in the future.

Regardless of who wins, though – the airline or the workers – it’s the passengers who get caught in the middle, often in messy, exhausting, expensive situations, and as McCartney points out, angry passengers can take a long time to give their business back to a company that has burned them.

The Response
American issued a response to the recent “operational challenges” that included the following statement: “As a result of a number of factors, including an increase in maintenance reports filed by pilots, as well as levels of sick leave usage that have been running higher than historical norms for some time, we are reducing the rest of our September and October schedule by approximately 1 to 2 percent. This will ensure customers are provided reliable service while minimizing any impact to their travel plans. We recognize these adjustments may affect our people and our customers, and are taking several proactive steps to minimize any inconvenience.”

To wit, AA is proactively canceling flights to help avoid future travel disruptions, though I suspect passengers on those flights have found the changes plenty disruptive. They’ve also redoubled efforts to stay in communication with elite flyers, saying they will prioritize “Communicating with our most frequent customers to explain why we’re experiencing schedule disruptions, and to reassure them of our eagerness to help if they are personally affected.”

It’s also taken other extraordinary steps like allowing passengers to standby for earlier flights at no additional charge, and the small but nice gesture of handing out snacks and refreshments to affected customers.

So what does all this mean? For me personally, I’m glad that I already requalified for Executive Platinum status for next year so I don’t have to try flying in this mess, because as much as I love to bank miles and points, my priority when traveling is to get to my destination on time and I wouldn’t want to take chances with all these cancellations and delays.

I understand the pilot union’s frustrations, and they have given up a lot to help the airline throughout the bankruptcy proceedings so far, but as Scott McCartney pointed out, I just don’t see how this tactic is going to fix anything. Rather, I only see it alienating even the airline’s most loyal flyers as well as causing the airline, which has already hemorrhaged $6 billion in the last four years, to lose even more money.

I don’t have any horror stories of my own since I haven’t flown American lately, but if you’ve been affected by the recent operations issues, I’d love to hear your stories.

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