American’s Pilots Hate the Focus on “D0” Almost as Much as Passengers Do

Many things go into whether or not a flight arrives on time. American’s management argues that:

  • What they can most control is whether the flight departs on time

  • And if it does, that’s going to be the single biggest driver of on time arrivals

So American Airlines management is singularly focused on what they refer to as “D0” — departing exactly the minute that a flight is scheduled to depart (the government considers a flight to be ‘on time’ when it arrives within 15 minutes of schedule).

American Airlines Airbus A319 Economy Cabin

One of the flashpoints for American’s pilots being unhappy with management is D0. Ted Reed writes at The Street that pilots are saying it takes away from their discretion — to do the best thing for the company and for customers.

The simmering issue surfaced last week following a meeting between APA leaders and top airline executives. At the meeting, “management reaffirmed its view that departure at “D-0″ is a centralized, command decision, and pilots will not be granted decentralized latitude — despite our role as the front-line operational leaders,” according to an APA newsletter emailed to pilots shortly after the meeting concluded.

American’s position is that pilots don’t have all the information to make the best decision prior to pushback, with American Airlines Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom explaining,

There’s no way anybody can know what has to happen with that aircraft throughout the day. It’s a complex dance {involving} maintenance, customer service, the {operations} center, flight service, inflight, catering, customs — a lot of different groups have to come together.

Pilots, though, say.. give us the information and let us make decisions.

American Airlines Airbus A321T at New York JFK

It’s unclear how real this issue is for pilots, or one minor annoyance getting larger play or represents a major ego issue undermining “captain’s authority.”

For passengers, though, it’s very real as the focus on ‘D0’ leads to consequences across the operation.

A year ago I wrote about American’s ‘Goldilocks Problem’ “Boards too Early, Updates Delays Too Late” and suggested management’s focus on “D0” rather than being ‘just right’ and helping ensure passengers get where they’re going on time is actually forcing customers to make significant adjustments for the convenience of the airline.

AirTran years ago operated a hub-and-spoke operation, but kept costs down by pioneering the idea of ‘passengers waiting on planes’ rather than planes waiting on passengers. Connecting passengers in Atlanta often had long blocks of time between flights.

Other airlines adopted similar models as fuel prices climbed. After its acquisition by US Airways, American actually went back to the more traditional hub model with banks of flights followed by long periods of time with relatively little activity (but where you’re paying employees). This ‘re-banking’ of hubs was supposed to be more attractive to customers. Shorter connections mean reduced travel time. And shorter connections show up higher in flight search making customers more likely to choose American.

The problem, though, is that with American’s focus on D0 shorter connections become problematic.

As Reed relays,

“Our gate agents who are in control of executing and closing the jet bridge door are under incredible pressure to close that door no matter what at D minus 10,” or 10 minutes before departure, Tajer said. “When you see passengers having the door slammed in their face, passengers who are left behind with open seats on the aircraft, that rips at our airline’s fiber.”

Pilots who make a decision to delay typically face questioning from superiors and the threat of disciplinary action, he said. “If there is a one-minute delay off the gate, it is treated as if the airplane is 30 minutes late off the gate.”

A number of decisions that affect passengers flow from employees being under intense pressure to push back exactly on time.

  • American consistently boards flights prior to scheduled boarding time. That means if passengers want overhead space, they need to be in the gate area not 30 minutes before departure but at least 40 minutes before.

  • Maybe the plane will be there, maybe it won’t be, because American also isn’t good at updating departure times in the event of delay, frequently only posting a delay inside of boarding time and posting further delays only once previous times have actually been passed.

  • So customers lose productive time to work in the club, instead just standing at the gate. And customers have to spend more time onboard, getting on as soon as boarding commences. This even means they have to get to the airport earlier.

  • And it means security delays are that much more frustrating, because there’s a real difference between showing up at your gate 40 minutes to departure and showing up 20 minutes prior.

Despite policy, gate agents have been known to close the doors more than 10 minutes prior to scheduled pushback, even when not all passengers are onboard.

Pressure on gate agents to get flights out earlier means it’s inconvenient to board late, and even dangerous to your connection to do so. So American squeezes connections, continues to tell customers flights board 30 minutes prior to departure, yet in practice behaves differently.

Interestingly, Delta operates a better on-time operation than American does and they do not follow a similar model.

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. Delta does follow a similar model contrary to what they may say or you may believe.

  2. @Trujeffie I’m referring to the erratic boarding times stemming from the way D0 is implemented at AA. Delta absolutely has pressure for on-time performance and does a better job of it than American.

  3. I was flying JFK-LHR last week in J. Our 77W was swapped out for a 772 about 20 hours before departure. This decreased J and Y space and left the flight overbooked in J and Y. (Plus there were downgrades from F to J.) There was one gate agent working the flight until about T-30. He had to rebook many pax because they were not rebooked automatically. And he had to deal with FA rescheduling because the FA numbers were not adjusted to take into account the equipment swap.

    I offered twice to give up my J seat if I could be rebooked on a BA flight that would allow me to make my connection. The agent chose to IDB passengers to later AA flights and not even ask for VDBs. I assumed at the time that this was because asking for and processing VDBs (and then clearing passengers onto the flight) would lead to a delay whereas letting the flight take off with all the passengers who were already booked on the flight would save time. Your post makes me think this is exactly what happened.

    On the one hand I think this is wrong. I would have been very happy to take a voucher and be put on a later flight. And another pax would have been thrilled to get on their original flight. AA could have made two passengers happy but decided not to.

    On the other hand, delaying the flight would have most likely made people miss connections at LHR.

    I agree generally speaking that focusing on T-0 in this way isn’t the best option. But in the case of my flight AA should have (and could have) rebooked folks and sorted out crew scheduling well before departure which would have allowed for an ontime departure and avoided many unhappy IDBs.

  4. If you want to be on that flight you’re booked on – you’ll be on that plane when the boarding pass says you should be !

    If it says (on your boarding pass) door closes 10 minutes before scheduled departure time – you’d better be in your seat on the plane. Otherwise you’re out of luck!

    Air crews don’t get paid until that door is closed. That aircraft has other destinations throughout the day it has to maintain a schedule for.

    Even a 1 or 2 minute delay departing a station can lead to a 30 minute “time out” in the penalty box – therefore making that particular aircraft subject to delays the rest of the day. (All because of your being late).

    Get to your gate on time – look at your boarding pass and listen to what the airline representatives and crews tell you to do!!

  5. This is just a symptom of AA’s issues. They’ve let customer service go in exchange for making some numbers look better (on time departure, higher revenue, less generous AAdvantage program). Delta has done fairly well because they have a customer service focus that makes the other things easier to live with.

    AA is destroying loyalty faster than one could imagine.

    Simple example:

    I took a flight TPA – CLT – BNA a few weeks ago. It was one of those tight connections. Flight left 15 min late. I, and 12 other Nashville passengers showed up to the connecting gate at D8. Door was closed and all 13 of us missed the flight. 3 were Exec Plat.

    Meanwhile, Southwest has several non-stops from TPA to BNA. But most of us flew AA out of loyalty. Why should we keep doing it when AA isn’t loyal to us?

    The customer service is horrible across the board.

  6. First let me say I have very little/no sympathy for whatever the AA pilots are in a snit about-it was their collective temper tantrum that ultimately led to the ‘new’ American, so they need to put their big boy/girl panties on & live with what they are told to do.

    Having said that, I couldn’t agree more with LetsGoToo’s comments re: customer service & I know there are LAA staff who would also fully agree. But, then again, the ‘new’ AA is nothing more than old US w/new lipstick-Doug Parker wanted the name (since they had fired him back in the ’80’s, as I recall), but not the product & that is what we have now-the name plastered on everything, but the product is LUS right down to the animosity towards the fare paying customer aka ‘self loading freight’.

  7. Yesterday on AA246, MEX-MIA, we left the gate 15 minutes early. To arrive in MIA with a blocked gate. Stood at the tarmac for over an hour before a new gate was found.

  8. @JH “Air crews don’t get paid until that door is closed” is sort of a fiction. Pay is higher during clocked duty time to cover time not tracked for payroll purposes.

    In any case the issue here isn’t primarily close the door 10 minutes out, it’s all the things that flow from “D0 at all costs” including starting boarding EARLIER THAN the time printed on the boarding pass, which is in itself wasteful and increases passenger uncertainty but also challenging for customers with shortened connection times due to rebanked hubs.

  9. I thought there was a study posted a few months ago that on time ratings are pretty much a function of how much an airline pads their flight times, and that AA pads their flight times less than DL?

    BA had some of the worst on time ratings for flights to the US. Last November they added 20-30 minutes to many scheduled long haul flights a snow their on time ratings have improved.

  10. The situation Ben describes is awful.If AA needed to do a plane swap, AA had 20 hours to adjust. On transatlantic flights, missing connections in LHR could me that you arrive a DAY late, not a couple hours late.

    I was on a Delta flight recently and the flight had a mechanical problem that required a return to the gate. When we arrived back at the gate, Delta had 4 employees there with boarding passes for replacement flights for those customers who were going to miss connections. This included rebooking on other carriers without asking. (Has that EVER happened on AA??)

    PS – I have only had one of six AA flights depart the gate on time this month and the one flight that did depart on time waited for a gate upon arrival in PHL for 45 minutes thus preserving AAs dubious record in May.

  11. As one who always has at least one connecting flight on every trip, the sooner the door closes, the better. I guess I’m not too sympathetic if you miss out on 10 minutes of “productive” lounge time. Ten minutes on a tight connection means a lot.

  12. Part of it is IT, I think. Delta invested heavily in their Delta Nervous System 2.0 (DNS) a decade ago, which made it possible for systems to talk to each other and proactively notify other nodes in the system of issues. My impression and understanding of the system is that with an update to one system, such as a report of maintenance due on an aircraft, data automatically flows to other systems like aircraft scheduling, gate ops, crew scheduling, the reservation system, etc. so that accommodations can be proactively made well ahead of time–aircraft swapped, gate space moved, crews for the right aircraft put into position, passengers rebooked, ETDs and ETAs adjusted, etc.–thus minimizing delays and allowing the operation to continue as smoothly as possible.

    SABRE, on the other hand, operates (from what I can tell) very much in a manual, poll-type mode. The left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, which contributes to things like departure times not being updated until after they’ve passed, since updates like that are done manually when someone in Dispatch realizes what’s going on rather than automatically by a system that is aware of what’s going on across the entire operational environment. This reactive approach to fixing problems unnecessarily lengthens delays as people scramble to figure out what’s going on and how to resolve it.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the airlines that refuse to come into the 21st century with IT are the ones that are suffering from the lowest on-time-performance rankings.

    Is Delta IT perfect? Of course not. Especially their customer-facing infrastructure (in particular, their website and reservation system, especially when it comes to award travel) has some significant challenges. But they’ve been willing to put some money in their operational control systems, and it’s showing in their performance rankings.

  13. I am on the 6am flight MHT-DCA every week and it departs on time or even a few minutes early every time. However not once this year have we not had to wait for a gate in DC, sometimes as long as an hour. They clearly don’t have a gate scheduled to be open when my flight arrives, so why do they schedule it? I’d much rather have an extra half hour of sleep.

  14. Bravo, JH!

    Sometimes peop,e get too caught up in their own self importance to realize what the ripple effect is of their actions/inactions. “Follow the Rules” is a pretty successful metaphor for life…. And it certainly applies to boarding an airplane. Show up early or deal with the consequences (not having overhead space or maybe even missing the flight).

  15. Further proof that AA is a trash airline being run by trash executives. Dougy is proof that merit does not matter in corporate America anymore.

  16. This is not something new. I recall working as a Red-cap in CPH, and my main airline always wanting on-time departures.
    The ACARS onboard sends messages through the DCS, so I remember more than one Captain, lifting the brakes while still LMC passengers boarding.
    KPIs are killing the industry.

  17. Personally, I have seen excellent customer service from both old AA and old US agents; conversely I have seen awful customer service on both sides. There is a morale issue within specific factions (namely with those people who can’t adjust to change), but it is not across the board.

    As Dylan said, DL does pad their turn times significantly more than AA does. This allows their agents to be more relaxed during boarding, which definitely comes across to the passengers. AA could benefit from following DL’s lead and doing those 70-minute turn times. The largest airline in the world needs to be setting a positive example for the rest of the industry, so please, listen.

  18. Gary Neff, you are incorrect. FA crews are not paid till AC doors are closed and brakes released. Period. Minor delays may give a token amount if passengers are boarded and a delay of more than 1 hr is taken. Until then the AC has to have brakes released-otherwise no pay for crew, yet they are clocked in.

  19. @KL Ellis that’s how your unions negotiate it, at rates that effectively cover your work before doors close. You ARE paid for that time, you’re just paid it in higher wages after doors close

  20. The comments about “be at the gate on time if you don’t want to get left behind” are a little unsympathetic. Twice this year, I have had delayed inbound flights, sprinted to the next gate, gotten there 9 minutes before departure, and been told I’d just missed the last flight home for the night. It’s not always a matter of “deciding” to get there 10 minutes early.

    In those cases, there is nothing as frustrating as knowing that there is a line of passengers on that jetbridge behind that closed door and that in a common-sense universe, I could just jump at the end of that line and not miss a Saturday at home with my family. Or better yet, that they could look in the system and see they had a runner coming all the way from A15, so maybe give him an extra 60 seconds.

  21. Eric you bring you a good point, & frustrating one, about D0. Several times in the past few months my flight into PHX has been significantly delayed, generally because of the late inbound, but sometimes, too, weather. Then, of course, there is also the ever popular ‘no gate’ issue. Regardless, once we finally get to the gate, the FA makes the becoming routine announcement about pax w/short connections, last flight(s) of the night, blah, blah, blah. And yet, never once have I seen more than the lone GA @ the top of the jet bridge, who has absolutely no interest in helping all of those pax. Where is the fleet of electric carts waiting to take pax from A28 to B2 so they can make that last flight of the night? Why aren’t those last flights of the night to Bakersfield et al being held? Somehow, in the eyes of AA, this is the pax fault & AA doesn’t see that it has any responsibility to assist its paying customers in getting to the destination they have paid for.

    I know if I treated my clients like that I wouldn’t be in business for very long.

  22. Airlines are late. You complain. Airlines do what they can to arrive on time, you complain.

    I have millions and millions of miles. What delays flights is passengers trying to carry on too much.

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