American Gives Up Customer Service for On-time Depatures, and Doesn’t Manage On-time Depatures

For the last few years American Airlines has focused like a laser on “D0” — departing exactly on time.

They believe that the number one thing they can do to make sure flights arrive on time is to make sure they depart on time. Departures are more controllable than arrivals. After all government completely controls the air space between airports.

When American’s President Scott Kirby became the President of United, D0 became United’s focus as well.

A focus on D0 without properly staffing gates means that gate agents have to dump other priorities. Customer service disappears. Proper processing of upgrades disappears. Flights board early, so customers show up at boarding time to find a flight mostly full and no overhead bin space. There are major customer service costs to “D0.”

Those customer service costs don’t show up as clearly on a spreadsheet as D0 does. So they’re ignored.

During United’s 3rd quarter earnings call they shared this chart:

So here’s the thing. American has been giving gate agents an excuse – a mandate even – to let everything else slide in the name of D0. And it’s not even helping D0. They take the customer service hit and aren’t even doing as good a job pushing flights back exactly on time as United or Delta. Smart.

By the way, British airline Jet2 takes D0 to its logical conclusion.

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. Why Delta has such an impressive D0? Do they have any problems? Southwest has such a low D0. How does it correlate to on-time performance?

  2. I’ve never seen a flight board early. If anything they will start boarding a few minutes past the gate clock but…..they will close the doors early. I missed a flight this week by arriving from a tight connection 12 minutes before departure and they closed the door while I’m standing there and wouldn’t scan my boarding pass because they gave my first class seat away early. They made sure to let me stand there for 5 minutes before they announced that it was only 7 minutes and that’s why the closed the door. Nice service AA.

  3. I’ve encountered early boarding at MIA in the past year but haven’t experienced it at any other airports I’ve traveled through.

  4. I’m a FA at AA and I honestly have to say, this simply doesn’t happen often. Now, I won’t say it NEVER does, but not one flight I’ve worked or a flight I have non-reved on has ever boarded early, aside from maybe a few times with wheelchairs, but never normal passenger boarding and I’ve not once seen anyone on the upgrade list not processed. If anything, as a FA the one thing I can’t stand is the amount of overhead bin space we generally have left and the agents had started collecting and checking bags far too early. Because of that, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen completely full overhead bins. I’m always puzzled when you write about such occurrences. Again, not to say that there haven’t been times when such things have happened, but you seem to paint a broad stroke and I’ve yet to see anything of the sort in my day to day job or travels.

  5. I am a PHL captive ExPlat (trying to break the habit given the last two years’ changes to AAdvantage but it’s hard!), and I can say that Gary is spot on with this. It’s rare that my PHL departures DON’T experience exactly what his post states. Return flights are hit or miss, but certainly not exclusive of this pattern.

  6. A couple of comments. First overhead bin space may be more available as people gain confidence with checking bags at the gate and as travel gear is minimized. Notebook PC’s are being replaced with units half the size or smaller and that can add up if twenty fewer PC bags are brought on board or are smaller.

    Boarding time works in the airlines favor because they print in big letters on your ticket departure time and then tell you in small print you have to be there 30 minutes before departure. Just print on the ticket the time we need to be there, thank you.
    Airlines are always happy to put you on another flight if they can sell your assigned seat to someone else.

  7. @Kun one thing that DL does really well is choreograph turnarounds. I’ve been on many AA flights that were late because a slight delay on the inbound aircraft meant that it couldn’t be cleaned and serviced in time for the next flight to board. On the other hand, I’ve seen DL flights arrive with 30-minutes to turnaround, load up, and push back and they manage to achieve an on-time departure complete with pre-departure beverages.

  8. Tremendous link about Jet2. Honestly, my head is spinning now about that story. Totally going sideways, but:

    * Its not like Sheffield area (or East Midlands, or even Manchester) is the expanding economic engine of England
    * Who the hell spends $10,000 on a family vacation to Cyprus (or anywhere)? And seeing as they have the wherewithal, why didn’t they just get off the damn plane?
    * What the heck is going on in Rotherham in general (look it up)

  9. @Amar I do not question your truthfulness, but I have to say that my limited experiences are different from your vast experience with AA. I have flown AA for two trips in the last 2 years (6 total segments, IIRC) and on at least 3 or 4 of those, the flight started boarding prior to the time listed on my boarding pass. At least one of the planes arrived to the gate >30 minutes late, so obviously it was not possible to start boarding that plane early.

    That late flight reminds me of one of my greatest complaints from my AA experiences: There was no notification that the flight was going to be late until after the scheduled departure time. Considering there was no plane at the gate, I find it very hard to accept that AA did not have advance notice that the flight was going to be late. And even when the update was finally provided, it was done in 10 minute increments. The first few of those were obviously not realistic because, again, the plane wasn’t at the gate yet and it was full of passengers who we all know would take at least 10 minutes to deplane and clean up after.

  10. @Autolycus,
    Thanks, no doubt that their are instances where this has occurred. Since merging with US, the posting of delays at or after departure time have irked me and every single co-worker of mine. That I will agree has become somewhat of a norm when dealing with delays.
    I just think that some of this is overly exaggerated… for one, we have written boarding times for each A/C type, whether it’s domestic, international (short haul or long haul) and while agents are quick to want to board early, flight crews don’t get paid. There’s been some confusion as to whether this is in our contract, but it’s certainly published, in our manuals. To the best of my knowledge, it’s not contractual. (Some things are just the way they are and I accept it as such, therefore I refer to manual and not contract for that). Anyhow, flight crews would be hard pressed to board early because of it. Again, does it happen? Yes. Maybe the crew might time out, maybe the tower will clear us, maybe this, maybe that… Is it normal? No. Far from it.
    I’ve not once seen anyone denied an upgrade or not making a flight because the agents are set on D-0. Has it happened? Probably. I can’t speak for every on of the 6,000+ flights we operate daily.
    My point is that this is such a rare occurrence. I can’t believe that every flight I’ve worked or been a passenger on has avoided this widespread phenomenom that Gary seems to bring up often. Honestly, I’ve never felt any pressure based on D-0 departure. If anything, I would want to push back boarding by 5 minutes, 10 minutes for widebody (international). More often than not, we’re sitting there waiting, everyone on board, for the agents to come down and close. Look, I’m sure I’m not so amazing that none of my flights avoid all of Gary’s issues listed here, but I don’t think it’s in anyway normal or happens enough to warrant a post on it.
    Now while I’m relatively lucky with delays, I’ve certainly experienced them and the posting of delays frustrates me too. That certainly warrants a post. 🙂

  11. I have had flights board early quite a few times, at various airports. The other side of the D0 obsession it seems is the lack of timely and reasonable information when a flight is delayed.
    Btw, Delta starts boarding 40 or 45 mins ahead, not 30 like AA.

  12. D0 was an obsession of US Airways, but the difference is that, unlike AA, US was quite good at departing on time. I flew US often and always remember a ‘buzz,’ so to speak, where it seemed like everyone was working together to get the flight out on time. It was actually quite impressive. Now with AA, things just seem a chaotic mess. I’m not sure why the difference with essentially the same management, just a different culture I suppose, that is difficult or even impossible to change…

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