American Airlines CEO: On-Time Flights Will Make Our Food Taste Better, Seats Seem Comfortable

At last week’s American Airlines ‘Crew News’ employee meeting, before taking questions CEO Robert Isom gave a presentation. He lays out that the airline wants to be reliable and make money. They’re focused on Dallas and Charlotte, building out their network, and operating reliably with “simplicity” and at low cost (efficient).

In the past American’s Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja has clearly articulated in the past that the schedule is the product. To Isom, though, reliability is the product:

For customers, what they’re expecting right now..they’re looking for one thing and it is reliable service. If we’re reliable, the seat is much more comfortable, the food tastes a lot better, the service we provide is much more accommodating…We’re at the top of the industry in terms of reliability.

It’s striking that in all of these articulations, the only thing missing is the actual passenger experience while being taken somewhere reliably on time. It’s the experience that differentiates airlines that offer schedule reliability.

In other words, operating on time is necessary for happy customers but not sufficient to distinguish a carrier from a commodity business that earns a revenue premium, something American Airlines in particular needs to do given its high costs and record level debt.

And despite Isom’s formulation that the food tastes better when a flight is on time, the food tastes better when it’s better. Service seems better when it’s better. And the usual quip is that service and food seem better when a passenger has an empty middle seat.

Record load factors make that less and less likely, though network Vice President Brian Znotins says “Revenue is just killin’ it right now.”

Where the airline is focused, improving its operation, which it hopes will have knock-on effects for the business, is:

  • Right start. “To run a really reliable airline you have to have aircraft that are ready to go at the start of the day.”

  • Two main hubs. Isom talked about a new control center for DFW, about turning aircraft, and “have a schedule that is built for reliability.” He’s focused on making sure that Dallas and Charlotte “have the resources they need” to run reliably, because planes go through those two airports and reliable operations there creates a “halo effect” over the rest of the network.

International long haul flying gets extra attention for reliability, since each flight usually has more passengers and fewer rebooking options. However there are limits today to American’s understanding of where things don’t go well. Anne Moroni, Vice President of Operations Planning and Performance, says that their “delay code[s do not identify a dealy’s ]..root cause, it is event-based, and we are in the process of evaluating how do ew change this.”

Currently American Airlines flying is down 10% versus 2019. They want to grow flying past the summer peak. One of the major constraints is pilots. Isom reports that American’s regional partners, including its wholly-owned regionals, “have aircraft that could be flying but aren’t flying right now” due to lack of pilots (pilots are being poached by mainline which pays more). And the need is only going to grow since “over the course of 5-7 years we’re going to see retirements of almost 50% of our pilots.. this year we’re going to hire 2000 pilots, we have fourteen, fifteen thousand pilots today.”

Brady Byrnes, American’s Vice President of Inflight whose hostile email to a flight attendant that contacted him with concerns over the dismissal of a trainee, let crewmembers know that he’s implemented “changes…in the flight service organization, some strategic changes in how we communicate with you guys.”

Those aren’t changes that are expected to get his direct input with front line team members to improve service delivery, though. Byrnes reports he gets 200-300 emails a day from flight attendants and deems it “completely unacceptable” noting that there are “a lot of different philosophies that have hit flight service, I’m basing my sort of strategy that was what I wanted when i was out on the line” which is that flight attendants contact their manager, not emailing Brady. In theory these managers would be more empowered than in the past, but there’s little evidence of this yet.

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. There are too many people that have underestimated Isom’s abililty to see what needs to change and to make it happen.
    He is absolutely right that operational reliability matters – it is a key part of how Delta gets a revenue premium to the industry.
    The irony is that so many argued that low cost carriers were such a threat to the airline industry and we now see that it is the legacy/global carriers that have developed the tools and strategies to compete for high value travel revenue whether it be premium leisure or business travel.
    American does have some major obstacles to overcome including getting a disillusioned workforce back onboard but Oscar did it at United and their actual strategies in many ways are less where they need to be than American’s.
    The other part that Isom is not saying is that AA has to get out of or pare significantly the hubs that are not performing as well. DFW and CLT both have facilities challenges but they are both in strong markets and AA can make them work operationally.
    Isom can help return AA to being a much more respected airline. It is a shame that he wasn’t given the freedom to make the changes that everyone knew needed to happen but it certainly seems he knows what needs to be done.

  2. On-time flights are important, but hopefully NOT at the cost of forsaking everything else about an airline.

    “We couldn’t process your upgrade because we’re short-staffed”
    “We can’t afford to wait for catering”
    “We left 1 minute before you got to the gate, because we must run on time at all costs”.
    “Rather than take a demerit to our on-time statistics, we’re cancelling the flight altogether”
    “Due to time constraints, there will be no beverage service on this flight”

    Common sense should be part of scheduling decisions. Yes, run ti on time, but stop using time as an excuse for shoddiness. An airline is more than just a schedule.

  3. I haven’t flown any of the Big3 but Delta in about 5 years…and that’s not at all how they got my business. I expect operational reliability at a bare minimum, and the 3-5% difference in on-time rates between Delta/AA/United is not significant enough of an impact to command a premium. Maybe if AA is competing with Spirit for customers, that changes.

    If you want me to pay a fare premium, you offer a premium product on top of reliability, like Delta has done for the last 5 years, and United is increasingly doing.

  4. I’m not even sure what Isom’s comment is supposed to mean? Mind over matter or something? It ALL matters to the customer.

  5. Things will improve now that Parker is gone. Parker brought American Airlines from first to worst in the industry.

  6. Another bad experience on my recent flight 1915 to Richmond, VA on April 14th. Flight delayed 2 hours leaving DFW, aborted landing at Richmond after what appeared to be a horrendous landing attempt (with a thud) and fortunately enough thrust for the aircraft to be airborne again for a second try, 45 minutes wait for a malfunctioning gangway at Richmond, PATHETIC FOOD in first-class. No reasons or apologies were given for the scariest of landing attempts. No crosswind was detected, Hopefully, it was not a case of the ILS malfunction (a 737-800) before the pilot took control. The new CEO will have his hands full, trying to straighten out an enterprise that was once best-in-class among airlines. Oops, I almost forgot to mention the tardiness in the luggage delivery process, My luggage had the red priority tag attached to the handle and must I say, it was the last piece to arrive on the carousel. Sad sad commentary.

  7. Alan says:
    April 19, 2022 at 12:09 pm
    Now that the Parker Clown is gone, there is finally hope for improvement.

    Hope is not a strategy!

  8. Parker left as his legacy the Oasis domestic product, arguably less attractive than the international wide body offerings.

    So what does AA what to be, a low cost carrier in the Americas or an international carrier with consistency across the brand?

  9. Paul,
    AA has had some of the highest labor costs per seat mile among all US airlines; Parker was content to decimate the product in order to try to get AA’s costs down but harmed the product and the operation.
    While AA has some structural reasons for its higher labor costs such as its sprawling multi-terminal hub at DFW, they can be more efficient and improve automation.
    They also pay an enormous amount in debt service that will go down as they slow their capex and start generating cash. Ironically, United is going in the opposite direction. AA doesn’t have to win against every airline if it wins against some of its key competitors.

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