American Airlines CEO: Why You May Not Have a Gate When You Land

This past week American Airlines CEO Doug Parker held an employee question and answer forum in Miami. A pilot there expressed his frustration at delays, saying that they’re measured in “dog minutes” because each minute feels like seven. They finally get on their way and arrive at their destination only to find that they have no gate.

Parker offered an explanation for how and why they run into a lack of gates,

The problem gets created by what is the incredible value of gate space at hubs. That’s what’s going on. We are a hub and spoke carrier. Most of the people that fly American aren’t on non-stop flights, they’re on connecting flights.

And our ability to connect those people is key to what we do. And our ability to sell connections is key to our having an airline that works. So we try to sell as much as we can, we don’t have any excess gates at peak times. We’re using all those because that’s how you maximize connections.

Gates at hub airports are a really scarce resource. So we try to use ’em all, and sometimes we try to put too much into the bag. We’ve done that, and we pull back when we see it. The core issue is that.

If you’re pulling up and there’s not a gate available and you think how can that possibly happen, the reason is somehow we got behind. And that’s why D0 becomes so important of course.

As long as it’s all moving on time it all works. We don’t schedule more flights than we have gates, but if we have a couple of airplanes that can’t get off the gate all of a sudden we have a couple of airplanes sitting.

He says the only way to make their gate scheduling work is to depart exactly on time no matter what — though doing so means employees get called to the carpet when the airline fails to cater international first class and it means gate agents not bothering to process upgrades.

Parker says,

That’s why we focus so hard on D0, because if we can actually make that happen everything works. But if we don’t make that happen all of a sudden things start to fall apart because we really are using all the gate space in the hubs.

He goes on to say that 767s are a big part of the problem because of the tendency of American’s 767s to suffer maintenance delays.

Ultimately American holds its employees accountable for exact on time departures but they haven’t gotten the rest of their processes to the point they’re reliable enough to deliver everything that’s needed prior to departure time — but they’re scheduling flights as though they have.

Airlines aren’t the only ones responsible for delays. There’s congested airspace and weather that’s outside of their control. But having the right employees ready to guide planes into their gates and to move jetbridges into place helps too. And staffing gates sufficiently to get everything done that meets the operational needs and customer needs matters.

In the meantime they’re going to max out the gates at their hubs and when anything goes wrong along the way they’re going to have insufficient gates for the number of planes they’re trying to push through the airport.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Other than Parker, what business leader assumes everything will go right all of the time, and builds a business around that assumption?

  2. Then how come twice a year when we get a gate at MIA, we have to wait at the gate for a gate operator.

  3. Gary you are so blinded by your hatred of AA. Why do you even fly with them? They should just blacklist you. This is a normal game of operations strategy. It’s not so easy to manage and plan complex resources in the face of massive uncertainty. The only option is wasting gate resources, increasing costs, and ultimately prices. There are tradeoffs in business, but you wouldn’t know because all you have ever done is be a pundit on the sidelines, criticizing those who do.

  4. No gate upon arrival? This is an LAX special. They’ve been better about that this year however.

  5. @WR so true. This is another recycled story which is what this blog is. Gary, bow out. It’s time, man.

  6. If they wanted to pay for another airline’s gate, there would always be a gate. This is not only an AA problem. They can make all the excuses they want. It all comes down to money. Just like DBC, there is a price that can make a gate available.

  7. So the idea is to have pretty much zero leeway, just expect perfection every time, and when that doesn’t happen, your customers just get hosed, so BFD? AA is obviously in an enviable position, because if I tried to run my business this way, I’d be out of business very quickly. This arrogance gets old very quickly.

  8. I’m baffled by people complaining about Gary’s writing and telling him to bow out. Are aliens making you read this blog or are you just annoying trolls?

    I too am a huge critic of Parker and find this type of article to be interesting insight into the (misguided) way he thinks about the business.

    To the pilots, I would say, I have always found it amazing about their pathological urge to lie about delays. A 10 minute delay for “paperwork”, “to load bags”, “a gate delay”, whatever is code for 20 minutes plus.

  9. American CEO Doug Parker is sounding more and more like the recently-deceased CEO of CSX Corporation, Hunter Harrison.

    The sooner Parker meets the same fate, the sooner American will recover to acceptable service levels.

  10. “He says the only way to make their gate scheduling work is to depart exactly on time no matter what — though doing so means employees get called to the carpet when the airline fails to cater international first class and it means gate agents not bothering to process upgrades.”

    Well United now has the same fixation on D0. And my experiences with UA are pretty good. They continue to process upgrades during and after boarding. The FAs have their mobile devices and approach “Mr. Leff” in 14C to tell him he now has 3F. And at around D:-3 they’ll check to see if F is full, and if not they upgrade the next pax on the list.

    And most importantly all my flights this year bar two have made D0 (the others were D3-5) and have arrived on time or early. The only D0 where pushback stopped (for 2 minutes) was so a late connecting bag could be loaded.

    Of course UA was coming from a terrible OTP record. They addressed on time arrivals firstly by padding schedules and flying less efficiently. And boarding starts at D-40 which gives GAs additional time to sort out last minute issues (and process UGs). So implementing D0 per Kirby dictat was probably easier given that a lot of the operation was already padded to avoid pissing off pax. Their challenge is to maintain/improve a good D0 while making things more efficient and cost effective.

  11. D0 is not working. It relies on too many factors not in AA’s ability to affect, effect or control. Weather, third parties, competitors, airport operations, government logistics………these entities don’t care about AA and don’t care about D0. Is there anything more frustrating that landing in DFW after a 12 or 3 hour flight, then driving to some ramp to wait for a gate to open up. When you get to said ramp, there are another 4 AA planes already there.

  12. What I don’t understand is why, with the economy roaring along, people buying up premium fares, and business travel through the roof, one of the airlines doesn’t take the differentiating step as positioning itself as the friend of the business traveler: going upmarket, building slack into the system, and taking out uncertainty at the expense of absolute load factor optimization. Of course per-ticket prices would go up, but most business travelers aren’t constrained by ticket price – they’re constrained by fare class.

    We’ve had a race to the bottom for years – when does someone at least do the math to consider that there might be more in it with a race at least a little bit towards the top?

  13. There’s no mention of the B.S. padding of time to help with on time arrivals. I wait for gates all the time because an on time 1 1/2 hour flight that really only takes an hour is technically early and the gate isn’t ready.

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