American’s Pilot Scheduling System Seems To Be Making Flight Cancellations Worse

American Airlines has been cancelling hundreds of flights a day for several days. They don’t have enough pilots, especially Boeing 737 pilots, to operate the schedule they published.

However it appears that the system American Airlines uses to try to find pilots to pick up overtime and crew open trips is making things worse.

  • American Airlines has 3 systems for pilot scheduling. The main scheduler is the Preferential Bidding System (PBS). There’s a separate Trip Trade System (TTS). And then there’s the Daily Open Time Coverage (DOTC) system which is how pilots volunteer to cover open trips for more pay.

  • It seems that many pilots won’t use this voluntary DOTC system because it is so complex and seems to award trips to them that they do not want.

  • What’s more, pilots are concerned that it could award trip them that they don’t find out about, and that scheduling would think were covered.

There are several problems with the DOTC system, according to pilots I’ve spoken with. The guide for using it is over 100 pages long. Scheduling at American Airlines is so complex that many pilots even use a subscription-based third party app to manage the process.

  • Before this system, pilots would list for trips on a website and crew scheduling would call pilots one-by-one until open trips were filled. It was voluntary, pilots didn’t have to answer, and if they did it was up to them whether or not to accept the trip.

  • The DOTC system allows pilots to pick up specific trips or accept trips within a number of different parameters that they set. In theory this gives them control over when the trip will take place, how long it will last, where they’ll lay over, etc. But there’s a catch. Anything that meets the parameters set is accepted, and they’re obliged to work the trip.

  • Pilots may not know when the trip they’ve volunteered for gets scheduled. They have to opt into notifications on their crew scheduling app, and there’s no phone call anymore. (The app that some pilots pay for will actually generate a phone call for this. And – ironically – before the merger with American Airlines, legacy America West pilots at US Airways actually paid a monthly fee to the airline for access to the scheduling system.)

An American Airlines spokeperson tells me,

Our open time award system for pilots has multiple notification options, including email, text and an internal crew system message, to ensure pilots are aware of their open time selection being awarded. We’ve also developed materials to assist our pilots in setting up these notifications. We’re not seeing data to suggest pilots are missing trips because of the system’s notification process, but we are always looking to improve the system and welcome feedback from our pilots and APA as we do that.

It appears the system American uses to get pilots to cover open trips is making it harder to cover open trips, since some pilots just don’t use it, even as some are savvy enough to pay a third party app to help them figure it out. When there aren’t enough pilots, American Airlines can offer premium pay (generally 1.5 times normal pay for extra hours flying) but even if they’d have pilots who are willing that doesn’t necessarily translate into getting pilots onto planes.

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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Comments

  1. Does anyone remember a year or more ago, it was a slow “news” day and our blogger posted a story about bloggers are not always experts on what they blog? And then he continued the practice? Here he goes again.

  2. @Amapas
    All I have to say about that is I read this blog because of the blogger – not the commenters.

  3. @Rude, I guess that is like relying on FOX as a news source. Anyway, i chuckle at the claim about the systems being too complex for pilots to understand. So, they train for years to safely operate a complex airplane, but they cannot understand how to use their scheduling systems?

  4. @Amapas
    Yikes. Fox News? That was a low blow. Lol. My point is that our blogger’s article mirrored other articles I have read about the AA situation. It makes me think the info comes from reliable sources. But who knows these days.

  5. It’s pretty hard to produce multiple relevant posts about travel every day, but I think Gary does a pretty good job. Much of the travel blogger content out there is just credit card whoring, pointless reposts of things most people already know (SAVE TIME AT THE AIRPORT WITH PRECHECK etc), and Instagramming extravagant trips paid for by the credit card whoring. Gary is definitely the best of this sorry lot.

  6. @Amapas Designing human-computer interfaces is a lot more complex than most people realize. Although I’ve been out of the software development game for 20 years, back when I was in charge of designing even the most basic systems for office PCs, the joke always was that what took 6 months to develop would take users 5 minutes to break on initial testing. Users are not logical, they are not intimately familiar with a system the way developers are – users are the worst. If they can do something stupid, they will. The vast majority of lines of code in a program are not to perform the basic functions, they are to deal with error conditions – and that’s separate from making a program usable, let alone easy to use.

    Close to 30 years ago, in the wake of the Gulf War, I was on the government side of developing the AH-64D Apache Longbow. Part of this was a major capability upgrade of the computers over the 1970s era AH-64A. McDonnell Douglas kept peppering us with questions about how the displays in the cockpit should appear down to the tiniest detail, like what order the menus should operate in, where it appears on the screen, what keys did what, how big things should be, etc.. Keep in mind that these things are vital to flying and fighting at night, at high speed, close to the ground, while being shot at. Getting it wrong could kill people. After a couple of days of meetings where it seemed we were just getting more and more in the weeds, I finally said, “You know, we could just ask the pilots and gunners to come in and tell you what they want and whether or not they like it before you build it.” And that’s what we did, users were made part of the development team. That required taking some highly trained professionals off the line and into the lab for several years, but it got the job done.

    If I had to take a guess at the root of the problem, the scheduling software was built with minimal end-user input because that seemed to be the less expensive way to do it – pilots not flying costs money. But guess what, they’re a lot cheaper than having a software product that doesn’t work the way you think it works or the end-users refuse to use.

  7. The root problem here is not a pilot shortage or scheduling method problem but rather management’s decision to schedule and sell tickets to flights they did not have the capability to operate. Just another lie to their passengers who depend on them when they buy tickets to a flight that the flight will operate. AA ( and others) took all that bailout money and now have scheduled more flights to cash in on that leisure demand without properly preparing for it.
    Once again, well done AA!

  8. @John
    Totally agree with you. It’s outrageous. It’s one thing to sell tickets on flights when seats don’t exist. Overselling should be illegal. But it’s quite another and *even worse* to sell seats on PLANES that don’t exist. Argh.

  9. Decades ago, American had by far the best IT not just among airlines but among many other industries.
    Fast forward and it took almost a decade after its merger with USAirways for American to integrate some of its major IT systems which clearly resulted in inefficiencies.
    Just like Southwest, there are costs to not being at the top of your game from an IT perspective and it compounds other issues, including in an industry that is as operationally complex as airlines.
    Some airlines just like other companies have simply been willing to accept the impact on the quality of their product/service from not having appropriate IT. American led the airline industry in stock buybacks over the past decade and yet gained the most federal aid because of the size of its workforce which is, in part, larger than it needs to be because of staffing inefficiencies.
    The AA operations meltdown won’t end anytime soon and the fairly benign capacity cuts won’t be enough as workers call in sick and quit throughout the summer.

  10. What I don’t understand is all of that bailout money was supposed to go to support payroll; basically keep the people on staff. How can they magically not have them anymore?

  11. Have to speculate how long the big shareholders will allow Parker to keep his job. The guy spends more time being “woke” than running an airline. Such a loser. Guess you can run the company into the ground as long as you spend everything on stock buybacks that line the pockets of big shareholders and management including himself.

  12. @Gary,

    One of the primary teasons pilots are hesitant to use the DOTC system is because even if they get the exact trip they want, the company is currently using that as a hook to get them committed, and then immediately change it. You cpuld bid for a two trip to LAX for example, and prior to sign in they change it to three days going to Who knows where.

  13. Got a cancellation notice 18 hours before flight time for a morning flight today. Every replacement option on the app came back with no longer available. Got a call back from the platinum line 2+ hours later after watching numerous earlier options close. Rebooked flight arrived 12 hours after reserved flight, and a connection. Original flight itself was a rebook after the cancelled original reservation 2 months ago. To add insult to injury while I talked to the agent I could see they were selling tickets on flights she was telling me weren’t available for rebook. No apology, no offer of compensation, nothing.
    My only hope is that this debacle finally gets the Board off their lazy asses to fire Parker.

  14. Is this a new system that they put in during the pandemic? If it’s the same system, while overly complicated, I would think that if they are using the same system, then the problem would be manpower to actually fly the plane.

    If that were the case, then why did they schedule so many flights when they did not have the manpower to actually fly those flights?

  15. Excellent analysis and focus on IT by Tim Dunn. Bob Crandall was not only the leading visionary figure in the industry but the driver to develop, support and innovate with it. Then, as if it wasn’t bad enough to foist executives with abysmal records into the leadership of American, they were naïve enough to bilge the industry leading American IT systems and force in the antiquate and flawed ones they brought with them from USAir. Not only was this a major factor in the chaos of today, but compounded employee workgroup disenchantment and frustration with management.

  16. AA Pilot is right… The biggest problem with the DOTC system is that the company uses it as a bait and switch.

    Every trip is identified by a sequence number, and the DOTC system allows a pilot to request a specific sequence ID. Say a pilot bids for sequence 12345, a two day trip with one flight a day that pays 12 hours… Just before awarding it, the company then modifies the sequence, do now it could be anything from a 1 day trip that only pays 5:15, to a 5 day trip with 4 flights a day they operated on days you needed off. Even though it’s not the flying you bid for, you’re stuck with it because the sequence number you bid for has just magically changed.

    If the company would simply use a new sequence number anytime they modified a trip, this problem wouldn’t exist and a lot of pilots would have more faith in the system.

  17. @ Johnny to really add insult to injury Parker just received a award from the Wings Club for CEO of the year!

  18. All this talk of IT systems brings back memories of SABRE and its use as a case study in business school. AA used SABRE to great advantage, both legitimate and illegitimate. They were known to wipe out low cost competitors through screen manipulation – Bob Crandall vision at work. AA sold off SABRE in 2000 and probably all its top programmers.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabre_(computer_system)

  19. Good article and some interesting comments. Agree with this assessment:

    “It’s pretty hard to produce multiple relevant posts about travel every day, but I think Gary does a pretty good job. Much of the travel blogger content out there is just credit card whoring, pointless reposts of things most people already know (SAVE TIME AT THE AIRPORT WITH PRECHECK etc), and Instagramming extravagant trips paid for by the credit card whoring. Gary is definitely the best of this sorry lot.”

  20. Us airways bought the SABRE system from AA in the late nineties in preparation for Y2K.
    They still use it to my knowledge and that explains so much!

  21. STOP Re-Inventing the wheel and leave things as they were… The old AAL way of running things was pretty much flawless and worked…. US Air has done nothing but constantly Re-Invent the wheel for the worst….. IF they would throw all their lowest bidder ideas in the trash and return to the old days things would function as they always had… the On Time Machine would return.

  22. Does AA use SABRE AirCentre for crew bidding? Is the software buggy? Or did AA configure the software poorly?

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