American Airlines Messing Up Itineraries Because They Didn’t Notice One Computer Setting

When customers buy a flight itinerary several months in advance, they often don’t know that it’s really just a placeholder. The airline doesn’t know what flights they’re going to operate yet – or when. They’re selling travel that they might honor, or they might change the schedule. And then when they change the schedule, and you don’t like the new one, they may not even be willing to give you a refund.

Fortunately American Airlines is firming up their schedules earlier than before, but due to a computer system setting that’s been in place for years but they never noticed, they’ve been automatically assigning passengers to itineraries that they often do not want.

After the American Airlines first quarter earnings call on Thursday, top executives gathered employees for a ‘State of the Airline’ discussion. View From The Wing reviewed a recording of this meeting.

Vice President of Network Planning Brian Znotins told employees that while they now have a goal to sell their ‘real’ (not placeholder) schedule 100 days in advance, they’re still seeing schedule changes:

  • The airline is still adding back in regional flying – American has said they have the equivalent of 150 regional jets still on the ground, largely due to a shortage of pilots. Adding more flights leads to schedule changes.

  • New aircraft delays. They publish a schedule based on the expectation that they’ll have a certain number of planes in service. Boeing has had issues with both 787 and 737 MAX deliveries. While not an issue yet with current schedules, the Airbus A321XLR has also been pushed back.

Scott Chandler, who is American’s Vice President of Revenue Management, explained why customers who purposely book longer connections – not wanting the stress of running from gate to gate, especially when their first flight is delayed – wind up losing those longer connections when the airline runs a schedule change,

There are settings inside Sabre. Sabre does the schedule change and rebuilds what the connections are. There are actually settings in there that we hadn’t ever changed. They’ve been there for 20, 30x years, that actually prioritize smaller connect times over the original schedule. We changed it…it’ll keep whatever the original connection time was.

This came up when a reservations agent relayed the problem, that customers kept losing the longer connection times they were booking intentionally – and they weren’t happy about it. Chandler says that customers will be able to keep the rough connecting times they booked during schedule changes now, instead of the reservation system intentionally shortening connections.

Bear in mind that if you are not happy with your new schedule when they run a schedule change, you should look up alternate flights and call to ask for those instead.

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. This happens to me all the time. I’m in a wheelchair so I’m first on/last off and thus I need long connections as it’s often 30 minutes post-gate arrival that I’m actually off the plane, assuming they haven’t lost my wheelchair.

    Plus, I dislike boarding a flight that’s already boarded as it’s inconvenient for everyone involved. Glad to hear they are fixing it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Gary and explains what has been happening to me in the last year. Whenever I go through CLT I added lots of time to connect since I was mis-connecting about half the time. So I was puzzled at the auto rebookings which would give me only 30 to 40 minutes connecting time. I am glad AA is fixing this.

  3. “For 20, 30 years customers kept having problems with involuntary rescheduling and we never noticed(gave a flying f**k about) it.”

  4. The flip side of schedule changes is they can be an opportunity to get on a more desirable flight – especially if the one booked was cheaper originally

  5. Glad to be a part of this change by endlessly complaining to AA Twitter about my reschedules.

    Flight moves by 5 minutes, my 1.5 hour connection in CLT moved to 40 minutes.

    The MCT in DFW, CLT, and ORD is unrealistic and they should know better.

  6. So…some Gen Z actually looked at page 638 of the COBOL programming book and realized the whole system dated back to mainframe source code….I call this the Revenge of the Pocket Protector Nerds!!!

  7. When flying American Airlines, I choose a longer connection time because of the two to three-hour wait to enter an AMEX Centurion Club or an American Airlines Admirals Club lounge.

  8. Great answer for this mystery. On My last call to switch back the CSR acknowledged the problem and switched that 1 to 0. I haven’t had a problem since

    Great Comments! 🙂

  9. Glad they’ve (hopefully) fixed that. Happens to me with nearly every flight.

  10. Just reinforces my belief that in the Fortune 500 companies, no one really understands anymore how the old mainframe code they still rely on to operate their day-to-day business really works. Was certainly true of the Fortune 50 company I worked for. Also seems to be the case with the current air traffic control software–every one on one hand acknowledges that the system is antiquated and out of date, but on the other hand, the people that are responsible for the day to day uptime of the system are loath to make even a single upgrade because that might cause the system to break in unforeseen ways.

  11. The Clowns at American Airlines always screw up my schedule. And never for the better, they always make it worse. So does Delta.

  12. I can’t believe the call came from a CSR. Does not reflect well on management that they were unaware, but that CSR should likely be leading her division!!

  13. Interesting problem I’ve never thought about. I’m not afraid of 30 min cxns, altho I did misconnect on my last trip which was ATC’s fault. I suppose the shorter itinerary might be useful for the airline because it gets the pax out of system faster. And they can sell more seats on the later flight. But you might end up reacc someone on a nearly sold out flight, when the later one is wide open. I think they should weigh loads/RM. Always rebook the pax on the “cheapest” flights. Within reason ofc: 1 stop stays 1 stop, don’t double the cxn/journey time, etc. I wonder if other airlines already do this?

  14. When Dougie boy was pushing on time departures they padded the actual flying times another 15 min .(check RNO to PHX) so now most flights should arrive early unless they were late on departure which is often. This caused may illegal inbound connections especially through PHX from Europe which screwed up all the early evening connections to other west coast cities often adding 3-4 hours to DURATION.

    I now fly United to the WC through DEN as it saves me 4 hours DURATION which is what kills fliers.

    Interesting, you can fly an Award ticket PRG to RNO in 19 hours if you pay the BA fuel surcharges but if you book the same schedule on AA it’s 22 hours as they extend the LHR connection to collect more revenue or they just want to punish their customers?

  15. This explains how regularly got into chaos with AA trips that involved connection. To the point, I don’t book flight with AA if there is connection

  16. Is it just me that super impressed that 20 years ago software developers put this in as a variable rather than hard code?

  17. @paper boarding pass … a Gen Z’er has no clue about COBOL … that would be a boomer … and that code would have been written in ACP/TPF and not COBOL but probably rewritten since the 80s when I was at AA writing SABRE code

  18. Yay! I called and complained about this when my flights for holiday travel got changed twice on me and it only gave me options for 45 minute or less connections… through O’Hare…in winter. Glad it’s being changed!

  19. @DQ

    Thats what I trying to say. Most probably a Z Kid got the assignment of figuring out why the timing issue repeated itself. With contacts in HR ( was the Boomer still alive and receiving a pension check), or looking over at an AA Alumni Employee web page, Gen Z got hold of one of the original Sabre Baby Boomer programers. With a grin on his face, the Boomer directed Z to a long forgotten data set with a copy of the original code. Yep, there is the code in question based in a world where airlines only had one or possibly two terminals per airport.

  20. Except the airline doesn’t notify you when they change your itinerary. The traveler has to continually check their booking to see if the itinerary has changed.

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