American Airlines Moved To Single Agent Boarding Before They Were Ready

At an internal employee meeting last week, a recording of which was reviewed by View From The Wing, a flight attendant asked American Airlines CEO Doug Parker about the challenges of single agent boarding.

During the pandemic American Airlines started assigning only a single agent to flights that were less than 70% full. This year they’ve started assigning just one agent to board flights that are less than 80% full.

Single agent boarding is a disaster. The one overwhelmed agent can’t manage boarding and last minute upgrades, clearing last minute standby passengers, and helping customers change seats – let alone answering questions from nervous flyers.

Perhaps even more importantly they can’t manage all the tasks that are part of departure while also scrutinizing carry on bag sizes (American is asking them to now charge to gate check oversized bags) and observe passengers who may already be drunk or under the influence of a substance which means that single agent boarding contributes to greater conflict on board the aircrat and potential flight diversions, too.

However CEO Doug Parker says they’re only getting a hard time over single agent boarding because they didn’t communicate well, initially via their CFO talking to investors (which I believe I was first to note). He says the practice is,

only on flights of a certain load factor, and there will still be support for the agent, and only when we have the systems in place that’ll help them to offload a lot of the work that they have to do right now. It’s a ways off still.

Except they aren’t putting two agents agents on all flights until the systems are in place for fewer, they’re doing it right now on all flights with less than an 80% load factor. Perhaps what’s “a ways off” is doing it on all flights regardless of load factor.

Chief Operating Officer David Seymour added that single agent boarding is “a work in progress now. it’s not massively rolled out there.”

There are technological improvements American has added, but clearly they’ve rolled out single agent boarding without all of them in place to make this work smoothly, and executives have to make excuses about the technology that is coming to assist with this and hemming and hawing around not fully rolling it out yet because it’s not ready (and still very much a “work in progress”).

American Airlines is clearing standby lists automatically an hour before departure to reduce the tasks an agent has to complete, but this also means that nonrevs listed for a flight will be confirmed and there won’t be seats available for customers running up to the gate to get added to the standby list. Lower status and non-status customers listed earlier will trump last minute Concierge Key members trying to get on an earlier flight when their connection arrives early. Although clearing standbys earlier means it’s possible to clear standby and still get upgraded at the gate.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. It’s remarkable how long AA shareholders have put up with their relatively paltry ROI’s (comparing to the other major domestic airlines).

    At this point, I’m not even certain a Smisek event would topple Parker’s fiefdom of poorly performing MBA’s.

  2. Hey I fly UNITED and my last 6 flights were full flights surprise!! and there was only one agent at the gate and you are right it is crazy she or he is running around customers waiting in line. I heard one said to some customers standing in line at the counter, she could not answer their questions and expect to get the flight off on time. The real surprise is that they are not showing up to the gate but 30 minutes or less before check in. So by the time they sign in get the crew loaded and paper work they are pushing boarding time.

  3. I don’t get how these execs and bean counters still don’t realize that reducing costs is a short-term save but a long-term loss.

  4. @KimmieA

    Because executive bonus and stock compensation is based on financial metrics and not based on customer service or experience. Hence the myopia to short term gain at the expense of long-term brand degradation at airlines like BA and AA. Until competent Boards start putting in non-financial metrics or KPIs, nothing will change.

  5. Four AA flights in the last 4 days, all with single agent boarding. None with any particular boarding related difficulties or challenges.

    Typical overdramatic Gary post here. Sure there are going to some issues with this. But it’s not the apocalypse this rant makes it out to be.

  6. I am a non-rev. Not only are we NOT cleared an hour ahead – unless the flight is REALLY empty (or in overseas flights – where a nonrev cannot clear security without a seat assignment). Fifteen minutes prior is typical. Also – we will be removed from the flight for revenue standbys, etc. We appreciate our benefits but also know who pays the bills.

  7. All of mine have been single agent over the past three weeks, and all have been nightmares. The only saving grace for the poor gate agent is that more than half of them have had delays, thereby giving them enough time.

  8. Sadly Team Tempe thinks like a regional airline operating 50 or so small planes a day. They truly are out of touch and are ruining what is left of a once proud airline. I’m a Delta flyer now.

  9. I’m a Flight Attendant of 23 years this is a carbon copy of the introduction of the check in kiosk. As the airlines try to their best to reduce the human interaction experience and make more profits this is the next step. Look at the check in counter 1 employee supervising 30 kiosks. Folks those Kiosks are the new employee!!!!!!!!!! And actually the passenger is part of the workforce as well when you have to tag your own bag and take it to the bag drop you essentially did the check in agents job.No different from self checkouts at the grocery stores. I never thought I would see the industry this bad but nothing surprises me anymore. Reduce the workforce that’s the name of the game truly sad The next thing to go is the beverage cart it saves weight and increase fuel mileage. Your Flight crew will be answering passenger requests via seat back screens or like southwest just a tray and a pad and pen. The less the airplane weighs the less fuel it consumes. Everyday the industry feels more and more like Greyhound. So much for glamour but after all if a seat cost $38 bucks to fly across the country what should we expect. Oh by the way I love Southwest but that has always has been their service model. Legacy carriers can’t expect Flight Attendants to perform the same way in heels and 3 piece suits. We don’t get the luxury of wearing tennis shoes and shorts.

  10. Any experienced gate agent (like me) could have predicted this. I’m sure this came down from someone who has never worked counter or gate in their life.

    I feel sorry for the agents.

  11. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue pre-pandemic, as the demographics of passengers were much different on most flights. Intrepid road warriors have been replaced with casual travelers who still think they need to check in at the gate and bring everything from home with them.

  12. As a gate agent in a short staffed major hub, I REGULARLY work solo on Full flights. 319s and 737s. During boarding we are responsible for security, watching for breaches to the jet bridge, drunks, people carrying on drinks from the bar, oversized bags, only 2 items on each pax, if 3 we have to check one, need I continue? All this whilst pax walk up asking where is their gate to LAX or other flight, or mother with a 5 year old sat 10 rows away as she “just noticed”, and she has a giant stroller she needs to gate check that weighs more than the 20 pound policy allows.

    Cut us Bi#$hes a break. Or fly Southwest or Delta. Whatever.

  13. So, prepping paperwork for inflight and providing answers to their questions, dealing with the ramp, operations, seat changes, upgrades, tagging strollers, keeping track of standbys, positive space crew, updating boarding groups, making announcements, ensuring boarding system is working, selling upgrades, arguing with passengers about how they are not allowed a carry on and have to pay, possible gate changes, and all of this while trying to answer people’s questions at the same time AND making sure you start your boarding on time and that you get the flight out on time otherwise you as gate agent has to answer to management as to why you didn’t. Oh, almost forgot, pleading with passengers who decided that they don’t need a mask once they are in the boarding area. So yeah, I guess we gate agents are being over dramatic!

  14. @Gregg Bender…..Admire your perseverance as a gate agent. I was a customer service agent at LAX for Piedmont into US Airways into AA for most of thirty years, before my buy-out retirement in 2016. Always stayed away from the potential circus-like gate atmosphere. During my last six years there, I even forced myself to switch from afternoon shifts, to bidding first shift of the day (with vampire start times between 300am and 400am). This almost certainly assured me that I would not be assigned to a gate. (At the time, shift bids were for start times, with no particular location.)

  15. Single agent boarding not AA’s only issue? Did you ever try to get a seat at their gates at CLT? It’s a human covid cattleyard where elderyand disabled can’t find a seat while waiting to board.

  16. I was in Miami and gate agents were over run by passengers unwilling or unable to board by zone. Gate agents just couldn’t be bothered to enforce high zone passengers from running to gate. Three announcement and nothing changed

  17. I feel really bad for the gate agents. They have a tough job of enforce many rules, pre-boarding all the wheel chairs. Single agents works if the wheel chair assistance and supervisor supports are well supporting them. What’s next? Robots? Airlines are in service industry. Reducing servicing make sense? I hate it. I guess something special in the air and catch our smiles are long gone.

  18. MAYBE THE CEO SHOULD PULL A 2 WEEK SHIFT CHECKING PEOPLE IN AT BOARDING. ( AFTER 2 WEEKS WORTH OF TRAINING)
    OH, AND MAKE THAT CEO GIVE UP THEIR PAY FOR THAT MONTH AND GET PAID WHAT THESE AGENTS GET. (AKA… NO PREFERENCE)

  19. @Mets Fan this is typical at MIA and PHL, the two AA hubs I frequent the most. The GAs never look at group numbers. Last week I had a young couple with Group 6 cut in front of me in Group 1 boarding, and the agent didn’t say a thing.

    Guess the gate agents have too many other responsibilities like Gary said, except for the fact this was a 788 with multiple agents working the desk/scanning boarding passes.

  20. The sentence, “Single agent boarding is a disaster.” is an opinion. It’s not a fact. I haven’t seen any concrete information to back up your assertion. Just because a disgruntled flight attendant says something is wrong in a meeting doesn’t mean it is. As Daniel Patrick Moynahan once observed, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but you aren’t entitled to your own set of facts.” I fully understand that this is your blog and you have a right to your views, but isn’t part of running a blog making an effort to be factually accurate across the board instead of throwing out knee-jerk reactions based on a loaded question asked by one person in a meeting?

    The following is just my observation, which I admit could be completely wrong, but it seems as if you have a visceral hatred toward American Airlines and Doug Parker personally. Again, I fully understand that this is your blog, and you have a right to your opinion. But I would hope your opinions are based on objective reality, not personal emotion or a desire for revenge. To me, having a personal vendetta against a person or entity that you’re supposed to cover accurately is not professional, especially for someone who represents himself as a “thought leader.”

  21. When Engineers don’t run Boeing, you get the Max disaster.
    When Pilots / Crew don’t run AA, you get meltdowns and snarled airport flow.

    At what point will shareholders and stakeholders in general realize that having beancounters, chummy MBAers, and other assorted spreadsheet jockeys lead companies is a recipe for disaster?

  22. AA’s IT support must keep improving, especially through the app.

    This week I had four AA flights, and all upgrades cleared through the app, before any GA showed up. This saved the GA, and me, time thanks to IT app improvements. My previous thirty-two AA flights this summer required GA intervention for upgrades.

  23. @Radio I spent $20K+ a year on AA and finally got sick of the cost cutting and left for airlines that provide a better experience.. AAs boarding is a disaster 7/10 times which means it’s basically all the time.

    Boarding should be a disaster 0.5/10 it’s not hard, have the staff to do it right.

  24. On my more recent AA flight I had been upgraded mind you 2 gate agents couldn’t handle issuing a new boarding pass they were swamped/overwhelmed
    One would have been buried and deceased with no other assistance
    The crush of standbys wheel chairs families etc and one hundred other distractions are too much for just one
    I chose to get in line and wait till the coach boarding pass was rejected as even with two working the line they could not keep up

  25. Not to mention Watching that they do not have three items or trying to take containers on with liquid adult beverages,
    How much more can one agent do at the gate it’s not good customer service

  26. @BB is correct. A major issue at AA, IMO, is that Parker is both Chairman and CEO. This is a challenge to both good governance and good management and one that the SEC should confront in all public companies. A strong Chairman is needed to hold Douggie’s feet to the fire along with his other execs.
    Elsewhere, American is trying very hard to tick off its best customers, as @Gary noted in this piece. Early implementation of software, products, and procedures before they are ready seems to be AA’s tour de force right now. They have royally screwed up Airpass too.
    Delta’s Bastion, who is a special kind of d*ck in his own right, must be laughin’ his ass off.

  27. I just heard from someone that the operation at the DFW airport, a main hub for AA, is so embarassing AA should be ashamed of themselves.

  28. I won’t be surprised a few years down the line these airlines start shutting down like twa, eastern, northwest, psa and the bunch of carriers that closed their doors unexpectedly…

  29. Well I suspect like most of America they prefer to work from home, maybe the airline mgmt can provide telepresense terminals to sort questions and forms remotely, i am sure the union would approve.

  30. Non revs may be seated earlier with this new procedure.
    They are never confirmed.
    It matters because, beyond semantics, it shows even seasoned travellers are careless in their understanding and relaying of information.

  31. An unfortunate time for AA…all issues noted have been brought on by AAs own foolish and lackadaisical marginalization of their customer base.

  32. I just flew AA again after sometime. From flint Michigan to Guatemala and back. Through Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Charlotte. I venture to say it has become the worst airline ever. Not even a great price. But low budget operations, workers on the phone who don’t know their own policies and change from one worker to another, rude customer service (definitely overworked at the gates – they were stressed and completely understaffed – it was a disaster at every location) not to mention numerous delays and canceled flights at every airport. I would say my last several experiences with Spirit have been exponentially better and the prices better to. So at least for a while – I am staying away from AA. They need to get their crap together.

  33. I retired from Delta as a Purser with over 41 years with their COVID Buyout Package in 2020.It was with great sadness that I see what the airline industry has become.No airline is immune from problems,but I see these comments and it just proves the “bean counters” are truly running the airlines.My friends at AA are very disgusted with the way Doug Parker was running US AIRWAYS ,now AA. with COVID and mask mandates all airlines are experiencing massive increases in passenger incidents both on the ground ( gate agents,) and flight crew.If someone has been drinking before boarding how can agent be vigilant to see this behavior when they are stressed to the MAX to get a flight out on time,even with 2 agents it can be stressful depending on the aircraft and it’s capacity.The stockholders today are immune to these reports.The CEO and executives only look at PROFITS. at any cost their employees.Its everywhere.I even see it at Delta but not to the extent as AA. It’s a much different environment now with flying,and it’s the passengers and the employees that are pushed to the brink..It is not the atmosphere from even 1 year ago,don’t look for any change any time soon.

  34. Amen, Ms. Garchar. It’s heartbreaking and I’m glad I’m retired from the airlines after 25 years as well.
    I was a Customer Service and Ground Operations Supervisor for a regional and a national air carrier. The stress on employees and the degradation of service sadden me.

  35. For decades, the order of importance has been: stockholders, executive golden parachutes and bonuses, then it fluctuates between passengers and employees. This has gotten more extreme in the corporate world globally.
    The pandemic era has just caused these priorities to further test the efficiency, patience and cooperation of sstaff and customers.

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