American Airlines Said to Be Leaving Behind 20,000 Passengers a Month at the Gate

American’s fundamental operating belief has been that if planes depart on time they’ll arrive on time, or at least an on-time departure is the number one thing they can contribute to an on time arrival. So there has been incredible pressure on employees to send planes out exactly on time.

  • This means starting boarding before the time on customer boarding passes, show up at the gate at the assigned time and you may not have any overhead bin space since the plane is mostly boarded.

  • But since American regularly fails to update flight delays until the last minute, customers often have to go to the gate to secure bin space only to find their inbound aircraft hasn’t even arrived yet.

American’s pilots union says the airline’s damaging obsession with D0 is leaving passengers at the gate when there are empty seats on planes. Gate agents are pressured to close the door and not get butts into seats.

Pilots at American Airlines (AAL) said the airline is so committed to making sure airplanes take off on time that in February it left 20,000 passengers stranded at the gate as the door to the airplane closed.

The number was provided to American pilots Thursday in a letter from Dan Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association.

The airline counters that they didn’t necessarily really leave “20,000 passengers standing at the gate in February” — that some of those people might have been on standby lists but not actually present at the gate.

American spokesman Matt Miller said the number includes all standby passengers, some of whom do not actually appear at the gate before a departure.

The number “is imprecise and not representative of reality because it reflects passengers on the electronic standby list, many of whom are not physically present at the gate area during the boarding process,” Miller said. “This and many other factors cause any reporting on unaccommodated passengers to be significantly inflated.”

Notably, American’s statement does not suggest that gate agents are closing the door instead of processing standbys into empty seats. That omission seems telling.

Despite the airline’s push to depart exactly on time, the new earlier published check-in time meant to force passengers to the airport earlier, and improper processing of upgrades by rushed gate agents, the airline’s actual on time performance has been poor. Something is clearly wrong and we’ve known about it for two years.

I’m not so naive as to think the primary concern expressed by American’s pilots union is for the airline’s customers. But that doesn’t make the concern wrong, either.

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. American needs to cut out this whole extreme early boarding process. On a PHX – OGG flight we left the Admirals Club 5 minutes before boarding was suppose to start. Walk towards the gate and hear our names being yelled as a final boarding call over the PA. This was 35 minutes before departure!!!! Needless to say the entire plane was boarded already. WTH AA!?

  2. Since when did this site turn into infowars?
    Every day seems to bring a new rant about airline competition, subsidies, the government, or in this case, an APA press release that really doesn’t impact paying passengers since 80% of standby pax are non-revs.

    Please take it down a notch.

  3. Doing the math, based on AA flying ~6,700 flights per day, 20,000 passengers in a month comes out to 0.1 passengers being “left behind” each flight – or put another way, 1 passenger for every 10 flights. If half of those passengers are actually standby’s who don’t make it, and the number goes to 1 passenger left behind for every 20 flights.

    If given the choice between changing your entire operation to depart later in order to accomodate 1 extra passenger every 20 flights, or keeping the current operation and accomodating that 1 passenger on another flight, I might make the same choice as AA.

  4. They most definitely start the boarding process before the time on our boarding passes. If you fly enough, you recognize this and get to the gate area earlier than normal. If you are a casual flyer, good luck on the overhead bin space situation.

  5. I’m waiting for the airlines to integrate smart appliance (phone, tablet, etc) into their apps so that the thing can communicate with gate agent boarding software letting it and you know what is going on with the process. Certainly it would know you are at the airport, perhaps at the club and update you to delays, impending elite boarding, last calls, etc. Gate agents could see you are nearby or perhaps stuck in security so they can plan accordingly. Maybe I’m too pie in the sky.

  6. Andrew makes a really good point! Also I have noticed AA is adding time on to flight time quite a bit

  7. The early boarding is especially frustrating when you are traveling in paid first, arrive at “boarding begins at ” only to find the plane 90% boarded with no overhead space for paid first.
    Why buy first class?

  8. AA is grasping at straws at this point, doing anything possible to look like an airline that has it together. In reality they’re struggling. Unhappy employees and subpar hard product keeps mediocrity in the forefront.

  9. This sounds a little overstated, barring the couple of extreme examples.

    1. Standby’s should be at the gate well ahead of boarding if they want a seat (this has ALWAYS been the rule, duh)
    2. In my experience, we have only left the gate early after every seat is filled (one advantage of a full flight).
    3. I for one appreciate leaving on time and if it takes boarding a little early to do it, then let’s go! (All my trips are 2 airplanes often with short connections)
    4. AA is ridiculously slow to update delayed flights even when anyone with the app can see the inbound is delayed and we will not go on time….this is what I think they should address.

  10. Gary, what you are trying to highlight, namely the bad behavior of gate agents triggered by D0, will never resolve until management changes the directive and/or gives more control back to those agents (without generating punitive repercussions for them).

    I was left behind at the gate yesterday (MFE-DFW). I was a revenue passenger (ticket cost over $1000 for 4 flight short segments in coach). The flight was already late (5 minutes past departure time when I arrived at the gate). The gate agent would not deal with any of us passengers lined up at the gate counter (in fact, she left the gate area in a dead run while leaving the jet bridge door open, so anyone could have access to the aircraft in her absence). When she returned to the gate, the poor thing went directly to her jet bridge door computer opened the flight for boarding, then after boarding the last ticketed PAX, closed out the flight.

    I was not the only one left behind either. There were more than enough empty seats to accommodate all the standbys at the gate. The point here is that the further flight delay to accommodate the standbys would have been minimal. A simple PA by the FA to those on board explaining the situation would have given a real boost to good will toward AA, knowing it was going above and beyond to keep people from being stranded. The remaining standbys were naturally ticked off at their being denied boarding, so more bad blood. The gate agent felt she was out of options, out of the loop, unable to make the proper decisions demanded by the situation.

    The rigid enforcement of D0 is guaranteed to make the situation a lose-lose for everyone. Over and over. Many of the other comments appear to be drifting away from your fundamental point. If service fails repeatedly at a company in the service sector, it is doomed financially. AA will learn by losing.

  11. everybody – keep in mind – that to pluralize something, just at an s or an es. no apostrophe needed!! So to pluralize the word standby, just add an s! Standbys!

  12. It’s amazing how much culture matters when it comes to how well a business operates. It sounds like AA’s culture is oriented around hard rules that cannot have exceptions. My impression of Delta is very different, in that Delta seems to empower certain employees to make exceptions when their judgment says one should be made. But by giving those employees the leeway to do their jobs, Delta is also getting better problem-solvers who can work through problems or delays to get things back on track much faster.

  13. American’s early boarding fetish has been a pain in the ass for longer than I can remember. I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard my name paged over the intercom a full twenty minutes before departure.

  14. I’m wondering if they are counting passengers connecting from another flight that has arrived late? You can’t expect a flight to be held up for connection flights.

  15. What about the upgrades going to anyone who pays cash and miles? No longer to EXPLAT!!! Is there any reason to fly with them any more?

  16. If they want people to board earlier it seems they should simply post an earlier boarding schedule . That way nobody is taken by surprise . Boarding should not be closed before the scheduled time unless everybody is already on the plane
    American and many other companies are often trying to find how many customers they can lose before it starts costing them business .

  17. This is causing great stress if you are connecting. I have been locked out at 10 mins before departure. Especially frustrating when the agent knows you are on an inbound.

  18. Willy’s Quote: “I’m waiting for the airlines to integrate smart appliance (phone, tablet, etc) into their apps so that the thing can communicate with gate agent boarding software letting it and you know what is going on with the process. ”

    I think either Delta or AA already have that. I get a notification on my smart phone that flight XYZ is boarding. Given my most recent flight was DL I am going to guess it was them.

  19. No excuse for telling your customers to do one thing, then leaving them behind when they do it. I can’t think of a bigger target for competitors. It’s just that simple.

  20. Just another reason for me, to never fly AA again. I am stockholder, but their operation is pitiful. I fly Delta. Delta does hold flights for late connecting passengers. They do it all the time. Why? Because if they cannot re-accommodate an international passenger, especially a HVC, the cost is very high for Delta. I have been on Delta flights that were held 30 minutes for late connecting passengers. So @farsighted99, I do expect an airline to hold my connecting flight. Especially if my flight is late due to airline’s fault.

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