American Airlines meltdown raises concerns for holiday travel

Nov 1, 2021

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American Airlines suffered an operational meltdown this weekend, canceling more than 1,500 flights between Friday and Sunday. The issues spilled over into Monday, with another 375 cancelations  as of 1 p.m. ET — about 13% of the airline’s mainline schedule — and another 375 delays, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

Hold times on American Airlines’ phone lines were cited at more than two hours as the airline struggled to catch up and rebook passengers. A flight attendant who spoke with TPG on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with media said that flight crews were seeing significant changes to their schedules this week as the airline worked to fix its operation.

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American Airlines cited strong winds surrounding its Dallas-Fort Worth hub as the primary cause of the delays, saying that the weather reduced arrival capacity and left flight crews bumping up against the maximum hours that they’re allowed to work in a given time period.

“This week saw two days of severe winds in DFW, with gusts of up to 50 mph on Thursday, creating crosswind limitations that sharply reduced arrival capacity by more than half. This weather drove a large number of cancellations at DFW, as we could only use two runways instead of the usual five that handle our operation,” American Airlines COO David Seymour said in a memo to employees, which was seen by TPG.

American was proactively canceling some flights in order to bring the operation fully back on track, Seymour wrote.

The episode was reminiscent of a similar meltdown experienced by Southwest Airlines in October, and another by Spirit this summer where seemingly modest weather events cascaded into multi-day network-wide disruptions.

Southwest, which also has a large amount of its operations based in Dallas, also saw an impact from the weather this weekend, albeit less of one: The airline canceled 203 flights on Sunday — or 5% of its schedule — while delaying 1,151, or 31%, according to data provided by flight-tracking website FlightAware.

Seymour said that 1,800 flight attendants were returning from pandemic-driven leaves of absence between Nov. 1 and Dec. 1, and said that the airline would hire more than 600 new flight attendants by the end of the year.

Nevertheless, the episode raised questions about the airline’s ability to manage holiday travel demand, which is expected to surge this year with large numbers of vaccinated Americans returning to the roads and skies. Less than two weeks ago, during a quarterly call with financial analysts, American Airlines president Robert Isom claimed that the airline would be able to handle the demand.

“We’re getting ready for the holiday season,”  Isom said. “We expect a lot of passengers. We’re making sure we have the right people in the right places at the right times (and) we’re flying a full schedule.”

In the memo to staff, Seymour pointed to the airline’s moves to add staff.

“The hiring of pilots and within Tech Ops continues to take place, and we already began ramping up hiring in Reservations so more team members will be in place for the holiday season,” Seymour wrote.

More: Here’s what’s behind the Southwest Airlines cancellations

“Additionally, hiring for our Airports is well underway and we anticipate 4,000 new team members joining us across the system in the fourth quarter.”

American Airlines declined to comment directly on the holiday travel to TPG or make an executive available for interview.

In an interview with TPG last month, incoming Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said that the airline trimmed its schedule to build in more of a margin for error during the holidays, and said that expects to have enough staff to handle the busy travel period.

Featured photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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