Lora Paine’s summer beach trip to Florida to celebrate a new job brings back only frustrating memories.
Her American Airlines flight from California to Fort Walton Beach turned into a nightmarish weekend of flight delays, cancellations and intermittent sleep in airport terminals.
She spent an extra night at DFW International Airport because of a delayed flight, then an extra day at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport on her return trip. When she got a ticket back home, her plane dripped water from an overhead leak until a fellow passenger stopped the leak with feminine pads.
“The flight attendants didn’t care that water was dripping on me and I wasn’t getting off the plane because I had to start a new job the next day,” said Paine, a 28-year-old project developer recently hired at a commercial solar company.
Experiences such as Paine’s are plentiful in 2019, with passengers of Fort Worth-based American complaining of mangled flight plans, upended vacations, snarky employees and hourslong waits on tarmacs.
Delays, cancellations and angry passengers peaked this summer as American Airlines saw its fleet squeezed by the grounding of Boeing 737 MAX jets and a dispute with union mechanics that a federal judge said was responsible for taking more planes out of service. Passenger horror stories spread through angry Twitter rants and distressing posts on Facebook.
And as summer winds down, another stress test awaits American and other U.S. carriers. Trade group Airlines for America expects a record 17.5 million U.S. passengers to fly over the upcoming Labor Day weekend — a 4% increase over last year. Friday is expected to be the busiest day leading into the three-day holiday.
Southwest Airlines, the other major carrier based in North Texas, also has struggled this year with on-time arrivals and cancellations. It endured springtime strife with its mechanics union and lost a large portion of its fleet to the MAX grounding.
But American is the airline industry’s summer lightning rod. Statistics and industry experts testify to the same thing: American is falling behind on getting its customers where they want to go on time, if they get there at all.
“American has not been a great airline for most of the 2000s,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel and airline industry analyst. “Even before the recent problems, it’s been unable to operate at a high level of punctuality and reliability.”
‘It is top of mind’
For Paine, the most frustrating part of her botched trip was watching other airlines around her run smoothly during the July 4 weekend. She said American canceled or delayed flight after flight, citing mechanical malfunctions, staffing shortages and weather delays.
“It was absolutely American’s fault,” Paine said. “They kept saying it was weather, weather, weather, but all the other airlines were running without delays.”
American’s management is aware of the problems and complaints in 2019 and before, said Julie Rath, the company’s vice president of customer planning.
“It is top of mind and top of discussion with every leader in the company,” Rath said.
Weather, the MAX and mechanics are major factors in recent struggles, Rath said. But she said last year’s performance wasn’t what the company hoped for either. Data for the first six months of 2019 also isn’t kind to American.
Among major airlines, American is last in on-time arrivals, with 22.5% of flights coming in late, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. Another 2.8% of American flights were canceled, good for second to last among the four major airlines, a number driven up by hundreds of flights canceled when the MAX was taken out of service.
American also lagged behind its competitors during the same period last year, particularly Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.
Harteveldt said American’s stumble in on-time performance makes it a liability to travel planners. “All of this has had a cumulative effect,” he said. “It puts more pressure on American to offer the best price and buy business with the lowest fares.”
This summer, American lost the title as the world’s largest airline to Delta or United, depending on the measure. Delta brought in more revenue than American in the second quarter of this year, while United flew passengers more miles.
Both Delta and United have consistently beaten American on profits in recent years.
Mechanics and the MAX
American blames work slowdowns by union mechanics and the MAX grounding for much of the problems.
In May, it took the Transport Workers Union and International Association of Machinists to court to show the unions representing 30,000 American maintenance workers were staging an illegal job action to influence contract negotiations.
A federal judge sided with American earlier this month, ruling that union workers brought on flight delays and cancellations by refusing overtime, taking more time on jobs and turning down off-site assignments. The airline then asked the judge to impose sanctions against the unions “sufficient to compensate American for losses caused.”
Over the last two months, American said union mechanics caused more than 950 flight cancellations and 280 delays of two-hours or more, disrupting travel for 170,000 customers.
Analysts who follow American said its customers believe the dispute is hurting operations.
“Based on the fact that the court took action, there is evidence that part of the problem is labor,” said JPMorgan analyst Jamie Baker. “The question is whether American has wound its operation too tightly to deal with it.”
Just a month after the alleged slowdown by mechanics started in February, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded MAX aircraft after two deadly crashes overseas. American has 24 MAX jets in its fleet, the second most of any carrier, and was expecting more to be delivered this year. Southwest has the most with 34.
The MAX trouble is responsible for American cutting 115 flights a day, the company said.
Bad luck has worsened performance, too. American counted 25 intense storms so far this year at its main DFW hub. There also have been problems with air traffic control systems, GPS and other technical issues that delayed passengers.
‘Don’t do it’
Paine said she hopes to avoid flying American ever again. On top of delays, she spent more than $1,000 at airports on food and an emergency last-minute ticket on United when she suspected her American flight might not take off. She was booked on flights, only to have crews hit flight-time limits, and then rescheduled on another.
For her troubles, she was given a $155 voucher. American pays customers for hotel rooms and other expenses if the delay is the company’s fault, but not if it’s caused by weather or circumstances beyond the airline’s control. For severe delays and cancellations, it prefers to give miles or vouchers for future flights.
“They told me it wasn’t supposed to pay for the cost of my flight, it was just a gesture of goodwill,” she said. “If anyone asks me about flying on American, I’ll give them a fair warning. Don’t do it.”
Not just upset passengers
Poultry veterinarian Gigi Lin spent a miserable 24 hours at DFW Airport on a delayed trip from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Huntsville, Ala., for a conference.
A nationwide GPS outage canceled her original connecting flight from Dallas to Huntsville, but Lin said subsequent flights were canceled or overbooked as well. A GPS outage June 10 did sideline 400 planes, mainly on smaller regional air carriers.
Lin said her problems didn’t end there. She was rebooked on at least three flights that were canceled and she missed a speaking engagement.
“It was very important to me,” she said. “I spent months preparing.”
She waited overnight at DFW for a flight back to Seattle, and then again for a flight to Vancouver. She said American denied her a voucher for a hotel, so she slept in the airport. The next morning, her flight back to Seattle was canceled.
“At this point, I’m like forget about it. I went to Delta,” she said. “I had already missed my talk, which was a big moment for me. By now, I just wanted to get home.”
Linn spent $800 for a Delta flight to Vancouver, which she said went smoothly.
Her trip points to another recurring theme voiced by American passengers — lack of empathy from the airline’s employees after stressful travel experiences. The unions for American Airlines pilots and flight attendants have said they’ve noticed a rise in passenger frustrations.
“There are so many things that we’ve had to apologize for that we haven’t had to apologize for in the past,” said Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “By the time the passengers even get on the plane, they’ve already been traumatized.”
Flight attendants feel American isn’t giving enough time between flights to prepare planes and crews, Bassani said.
“Sometimes there isn’t enough time to use the restroom,” she said.
American pilot Eric Ferguson, head of the Allied Pilots Association, said many of the problems are due to inefficient programs to schedule crews and airplanes.
“Who is most at fault for the operational problems?” Ferguson said. “Is it the weather? Is it mechanics? Is it the company scheduling ability? I think it’s the company scheduling ability as much as anything else at this point. But it’s certainly a confluence of events.”
Planes are often delayed when a flight crew “times out,” or reaches their hour limit under federal safety rules. If the airline can’t find replacements, even for one crew member, entire flights can be delayed or canceled.
Are fixes coming?
American’s recent court victory might help, but the company is still negotiating contracts with all three of its major labor groups, including pilots and flight attendants. It also should get its grounded MAX jets back later this year, if Boeing’s timeline for fixes holds.
“I think it’s just a bigger problem than it ever has been in the past for American,” said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant with RW Mann & Co. in New York. “It’s more noticeable because American, as a Big 3 network carrier, has been able to rely on high fare corporate revenue.”
American benefited from size over its competitors when it merged with U.S. Airways in 2013, operating the largest network with 365 destinations, Mann said. But other airlines have aggressively grown routes and added flights between key markets, while American’s traffic growth has slowed.
“The only difference between American and Delta at this point is that Delta is far more reliable,” Mann said.
Rath, who came to American in 2015 from Delta, said the airline is making technology changes to help customers deal directly with delays and cancellations. Much of that is through American’s app to let customers deal with rebooking and compensation themselves. She said customers who prefer to use an app will help alleviate lines for those wanting face-to-face interaction.
In response to challenges with delays and cancellations, the airline has also started proactively bringing sandwich carts, food and beverages to passengers of delayed and canceled flights. But Rath said they can still do better to let customers know what’s happening.
“We have to get the customer taken care of before we get to the airport,” she said.
American has also put together teams to work on how to get planes in and out of airports faster, she said. And there are plans for improved crew scheduling systems, too.
Other major airlines, such as United, have shown the ability to improve reliability and win back customers. And American has major advantages if it can improve, said JPMorgan’s Baker.
Most passengers are going to pick airlines based on route and convenience, he said. American has the most destinations of any carrier. It also has credit card holders and frequent fliers who are reluctant to give up a preferred status that it took them years to achieve.
“I frequently hear from people that say they can’t stand a particular airline, but they stay with them for points, lounge access or other benefits,” Baker said. “The reality is that passenger memories are short and are easily overcome by price, network strength and loyalty perks.”
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