An AvGeek Dream: Spending the Night With American Airlines
Sleep is a precious commodity as the parent of a toddler.
So when I got an invite from American Airlines to spend a night with them learning about their operations, I have to admit I briefly hesitated. I was choosing between a quiet hotel room with eight hours of uninterrupted sleep or pulling an all-nighter with an airline.
But who I am I kidding? Of course I wanted to do it.
The only question remaining was whether this would be a night of awesome aviation folks geeking out while learning new things or just a giant publicity stunt by American Airlines.
The short answer: It was both. Even after a decade covering the aviation industry, however, I still learned plenty that night at the airline’s operations center, just south of DFW International Airport in Texas.
The theme of the night was how the airline jumpstarts the next day’s operation.
That’s a big issue for American. It lags behind the competition when it comes to on-time performance: 78.3 percent of flights operated by American were on time in the first 11 months of 2018, compared to 85.4 percent for Delta Air Lines and 79.6 percent for United Airlines.
Frequent American flyers will snark about the fervent push for “D0” -- closing the plane door zero minutes past the scheduled departure time. But getting flights out on time, especially those first “right start” flights from major hubs, is key to making sure that late afternoon flights aren’t delayed.
That said, there is not much American does in this area that other airlines don’t -- meaning the “news” American offered wasn't particularly insightful.
Instead, I am going to offer a few key takeaways from my adventure.
Over the years, I have visited the operations centers at Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and American's old center. (Hawaiian Airlines, I owe you a visit.) This was my first trip to the new complex American built following its merger with US Airways.
The operations center is the heart of any airline. Dispatchers are in constant contact with pilots 35,000 feet up in the sky. Teams ensure there are enough flight attendants for each flight -- an issue that becomes ever harder as flights get delayed or canceled. A team watches the weather. Corporate security is here. So are teams that oversee mechanics. Another crew calculates the best spots to put cargo under planes so the jets remain balanced.
American's new two-story facility opened in September 2015 and covers 149,000 square feet. The building was designed to withstand the winds of an EF3 tornado. That's not the strongest tornado on the five-level scale, but with winds of 136 to 165 mph, you can imagine the potential damage.
There were some interesting finds roaming around the center at night. First, I noticed lots of dot matrix printers. (Yes, children of the 80s, they still exist!) Remember, airlines run on complex computer systems built on top of systems from the '70s. That means the airline industry still relies on a bunch of printers with the tear-off dotted margins, even in a new operations facility.
Other oddball items I spotted were a few US Airways manuals. Remember, most of American's leadership, including its president (and operations guru) Robert Isom, came from the US Airways side of the joint company.
American Airlines is the only US carrier committed to a first class and business class cabin on some of its international long-haul flights. It’s a nice product but one that falls short on several levels.
Our little group got to try out the latest offerings from American’s partnership with mattress-maker Casper.
Let’s just say I’ve worn a lot of airline pajamas. (I might have a stash of them at home too.) And these were really, really comfy. They are lightweight cotton, light enough that I wouldn’t be sweating on a hot plane, and come in S/M or L/XL sizes.
Plus, the slippers with the closed eyes were cute.
We also learned some details about American’s previously announced plans to replace Bose noise-canceling headphones with new ones from Bang & Olufsen. Bose has stopped making the three-pronged ones that work with American’s jets.
I took this opportunity to voice my biggest complaint (and I know I’m not alone), which is that American’s flight attendants come through the cabin far too early before landing to collect the headphones. They can be very aggressive about it -- waking me up long before landing in London once, for instance.
Erwan Perhirin, American’s managing director of customer experience marketing for onboard products, acknowledged that it was an issue but didn’t offer an immediate solution to the problem.
American also needs to clean the headphones between flights. Somehow other airlines manage to do this.
Let’s see how American tackles these points once the new headphones roll out.
American has developed a new system to monitor turbulence. When a pilot flies through it, the system automatically reports it to a data center on the ground and then informs other American aircraft about it. (Note: American isn’t sharing this data with other airlines, or vice-versa, unless it is a severe spot of turbulence.)
Currently 400 aircraft have the system with another 400 getting it this year. That makes up the vast majority of the mainline fleet, not including regional jets.
I also learned that 70 percent of really bad turbulence -- it’s actually classified as “moderate turbulence” -- occurs below 20,000 feet. In other words: time your bathroom runs for the long middle stretch of the flight when planes are typically cruising around 35,000 feet above sea level. And keep that seat belt buckled when in your seat (or lie-flat bed; you are a TPG reader, after all.)
The turbulence task force was created with three goals:
- Curtail costly litigation
- Reduce missed crew time
- Stay out of the news
Turbulence is actually very rare. Only 0.33 percent of all flight time is spent in any type of turbulence and only 1 percent of that time is in rough air intense enough to be deemed to be significant. (While those stats sound nice, it’s always the rough air on a trip that we remember.)
So now we get to the real fun. (Yes, I made you wait to read about it, but American made us wait too -- until 2am.) This is where the night got a bit blurry. Caffeine works only so many miracles.
Even in the middle of the night, there is high demand for time on the simulators. These multi-million dollar machines can simulate any type of in-flight emergency.
Eight years ago, when I first flew one, I did a very, very hard landing. "Everybody lived," the instructor told me, "but the airline's customer service team just got 150 phone calls." Ouch.
We got to "fly" one of the most advanced jets out there, the Airbus A350. American never took delivery of the jet but still owns a sim, so that's why it was available to us -- its pilots aren't exactly lining up to fly it.
This is where aviation dreams are made!
That said, this time my flight was much shorter than my earlier, solo outing. There were eight journalists in our group and our time in the simulator was cut short.
Luckily, that meant there was no judging -- this time -- of my landing.
A few weather facts were thrown at us that night.
For starters, "heat lightning" isn’t a real thing. The flashes you see are from storms far enough away that you don’t hear the thunder. This is all-important because lighting not only disrupts flight operations, it also grinds things on the ground to a halt. If there is lightning reported within five miles of the airfield, all baggage handlers and other ground crew members must take shelter for at least 15 minutes.
Wind is another big issue. High winds make it harder to arrange planes properly for landing, so air traffic controllers have to add in more space, which causes delays.
Chicago is the nation's busiest airport for takeoff and landings. But "The Windy City" only sees an average annual wind speed of 10.3 mph. Compare that to 11.2 mph in Honolulu, 12.2 mph in Oklahoma City, 12.3 mph in Boston and 13.9 in Dodge City, Kansas.
(Chicago’s moniker as “The Windy City” actually dates back to the late 19th century and has to do with the bluster from city politicians.)
American's social media team deals with 4,500 tweets a day, and the number of direct messages it receives via Twitter has grown 250 percent in the last five years.
The team answered lots of questions from us but dodged one key one: Whether the growth of Twitter use has resulted in fewer staff at telephone reservations centers and longer wait times for service during storms. (TPG tip: call the international reservation phone numbers for faster service.)
We did learn American tries to reply to everybody on Twitter in a timely manner, but when there is a storm or a high number of customers reaching out, they have a system that prioritizes responses based on somebody’s elite status tier with the airline and the number of Twitter followers they have.
So I guess popularity does count for something?
Around 3 a.m., sleep finally won out over my inner aviation geek. There were more activities scheduled, but I had an early-morning breakfast with a competing airline crosstown so I headed back to the hotel for a whole four hours of rest.
As I crawled into my hotel bed and dozed off, I found myself once again marveling about the pajamas.
Maybe they were really cozy -- or maybe I was just completely sleep deprived.