Brace For Summer Travel: American Airlines Tops List For Most Delays, Cancellations, Lost Bags

American Airlines says their operations are improved, and they’ve become a much more reliable airline. The data they report to the government does not bear this out, but they’re insistent that if you dig deeper they’ll come out looking better.

Overall, though, if passengers are getting delayed, cancelled, and diverted – and if their bags are lost, or they’re turned away from flying completely despite having a ticket – Department of Transportation reports shows that it’s probably happening on American Airlines. And American expects 72 million passengers this summer.

Here’s the claim:

  • American Airlines CEO Robert Isom opened the carrier’s earnings call after the January through March quarter wrapped, “The American Airlines team continues to build a more reliable, efficient and resilient airline. I’d like to thank our team for running a fantastic operation.”

  • Chief Operating Officer David Seymour says, “We’re continuing the momentum that we started well over a year ago, almost two years, of just really strong operating performance.”

Here’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics data from the first quarter:

  • American Airlines was number 6 overall in on-time arrivals. This was not an improvement over the prior year. Given the scale of American’s operation, they had more delays than any other airline.

  • For March, American Airlines was number 5 in cancellation percentage. (Here we should look at March rather than the full first quarter, because United and Alaska Airlines data are heavily skewed by the Boeing 737 MAX 9 grounding.)

    They had more cancellations as any other airline. American Airlines mainline was 11 times as likely to cancel a flight as Delta mainline.

  • American’s 426 diversions in March were more than Delta and Southwest combined.

  • American was again last in the industry during March and for the full quarter for mishandled checked bags. Yet the airline tells employees they’re not even ready to invest in RFID tracking of checked bags.

  • American had more involuntary denied boardings in the first quarter than all other US airlines combined. While Delta didn’t have a single involuntary bump during the quarter, American had 3,061. United had 75.

Cancellation and delay data alone doesn’t tell us how well an airline is operating. This is the highest-level data, and there are reasons for delay from mechanical issues and lack of crew (“controllable”) to weather and air traffic control issues (where the airline says it isn’t their fault, although how well they respond to and recover from these issues certainly is).

  • Storms in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions were worse in the first quarter of 2024 compared to the same period in 2023. This year there were multiple significant storm events, including severe thunderstorms, snowstorms, and high winds, and reports on insured losses are higher this year than last for the same period.

  • American has hubs in New York, Philadelphia, and D.C. as well as down to Charlotte. While United has a big presence in New York and DC, American’s combined presence is greater in the region.

  • On the other hand, storms were more modest in Dallas and Florida year-over-year.

An American Airlines spokesperson provided data on their completion factor and their controllable completion factor (which excludes weather, air traffic control, and other issues they’ve deemed outside of their influence, though doesn’t speak to operating on-time).

  • American’s first quarter performance on both metrics was its best in the last decade, though 1Q24 controllable completion factor wasn’t materially distinguishable from 2023’s performance.
  • Both certainly represented significant improvement over pandemic lows in performance.

The airline also highlights greater use of computer tools to recover their operation more quickly, noting that this works best at their large hubs.

American doesn’t look great overall during the first quarter, and with a terrible weather-ending to May in North Texas (along with running out of crew reserves, and I understand a less-than-usual willingness of flight attendants to volunteer for extra premium pay trips to help out given contract negotiations), they’re not going to look good in May either.

And weather doesn’t really explain why American continues to be the worst for lost bags and involuntarily denying boarding to passengers.

I recently wrote that American’s operation has been reported to be better but that I could not figure out why (i.e. “what’s different”) and that made me think there was a lot of luck in risk in any improvement. It looks like I was more right than I even realized. American Airlines has more delayed flights, more cancelled flights, and more lost bags than any other U.S. carrier, even as there were mitigating weather factors in the Northeast and Mid-atlantic during the first quarter.

The airline’s thesis has been that if they could become reliable, then they’d be profitable. I’ve mostly taken them at their word that they’ve improved reliability, and wondered then why aren’t they profitable? Clearly reliability is a baseline, it’s table stakes, but to earn a revenue premium and have customers choose to spend more to fly a particular airline then the product also has to be appealing.

American Airlines needs to do both. They need to operate reliably, so they don’t chase away customers which they were doing even before the pandemic. And they need to offer a compelling product that will entice high value passengers – which they need because they are a high cost airline, and their costs are going to be going up once they sign a new flight attendant contract.

This summer, though, more delays, more cancellations, more lost bags and more denied boardings are likely to happen on American Airlines than other airlines based on how each has performed so far this year.

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. DFW= Doesn’t Function Wet

    If there’s a lightning bolt within 500 miles of that airport, AA’s meltdown begins…

  2. I’ve been a loyal client of AA for many years and I live in the DFW area so it was always just a given that I use them.
    After my fiasco of an international trip from DFW-through LHR to Oslo in 2022 I’m rethinking my loyalty. Over 4 hours of delay leaving DFW; mis-directions from AA personal when finally landing at LHR totally missing the flight to Oslo. Thought…oh well, AA will take care of us…after all it was their fault. WRONG! Lost several thousands on trains, ferries, lodging and tours that we never were able to get to because of the 3 day delay in having to stay in London before AA could get us to Bergen, Norway. Then another 3 days before luggage arrived…the night BEFORE the cruise. Even TravelEx insurance was worthless!
    Totally rethinking my loyalty!

  3. I live in Charlotte, so AA is pretty much my only option. I had what should have been a pretty simple flight home last Friday evening delayed 4 1/2 hours because of mechanical issues and crew timing out. Just horrible incompetence in their operations. But it’s my only choice. 🙁

  4. Brett Snyder (Cranky Flier) pulled the stats for April and May for his blog this week, and with five months of data, AA is looking… pretty bad. For May (realize May was terrible for them because of DFW weather), they were ahead of only Frontier for on time arrivals.

  5. Yet as Gary stated 72 million folks will fly AA this summer. Good luck.. Since the US Air folks took over American Airlines it has been a race to the bottom. Bigger is not better. Maybe AA should start down sizing to get things back under control.

  6. The chronic issue with AA is the piss poor Management from the top down. To this day I do not understand WTF the Stockholders were thinking when they selected Doug Parker and the Sheriffs of Tempe to lead the MERGED Airline over Tom Horton (AA). Horton may have had his flaws but no damn way would I have entrusted Parker (slimy Snake Oil salesman) with the keys to the Larger entity. There have been countless missteps along the way but one of the Biggest mistakes was retaining Robert Isom over Scott Kirby who has allowed United Airlines to flourish since he arrived in Chicago. I feel the clock is ticking on Isom and how he handles the FA unrest with their contract negotiations will determine just how much the current Board of Directors will take of his incompetence. Isom is not well liked amongst the Employees and they do not trust Him as the CEO and likely the BOD is pretty much over his excuses. I was never a fan of Parker but Isom is pretty much as bad as they come and he sure as hell should not be earning $31M a year for the ShitShow that AA has become.

  7. I don’t think that the executives at American Airlines really care that much. The airline continues to ignore the truth. The airline is too big perhaps.

  8. I usually disagree with many of the comments posted here… But… I don’t see a single comment that I disagree with.

    I thought things were bad under Parker… But they do seem worse under Isom.

    There needs to be a huge overhaul of the company’s product, I am definitely a fan of the direction that Kirby is taking United. Beyond that, I think that having everything concentrated in DFW isn’t working.

    I want more widebody premium overseas flying to be spread out amongst more of their other bases. The Company speaks of DFW “weather” A LOT!!! So people are missing connections to and from there.

    Flight crews are waiting to work outbound flights in other cities, but the plane arriving from DFW is hours late.

  9. @Roger – the stockholders did not hold a vote for Chairman and CEO when Usairways acquired AA. I agree with just about everything you wrote, but the stockholders had no say. AA was in bankruptcy, and the stockholders would have been represented by a committee for unsecured creditors, but there was no vote.

  10. roger,
    in addition to oct’s comments, let’s not forget that Kirby was the network guy at US and later AA and had his eyes on the throne until something got crossed that sent him looking elsewhere for a new gig. Kirby made many mistakes at AA including arguing that some flights needed to be operated for strategic purposes – and he does a version of that at UA even now; Cranky highlighted how poorly the 60% increase in capacity across the Pacific performed last winter. When you are the largest company in a market – as UA is in the Pacific – you don’t need to trash your own markets w/ excess capacity. UA lost money across the pacific in the 4th quarter (most recent reported at the region level) while DL made money.
    And let’s not forget that Kirby said w/ Parker that US couldn’t make money w/ over 1/4 of the slots at LGA so traded them away to DL for, net-net, $60 million.

    AA and UA BOTH were significantly mismanaged but UA just happened to be in a place where they were tired of underperforming. Kirby learned enough from his decades of mistakes and what he had seen at other carriers that he is running things better than he did at other carriers including AA but UA could make a whole lot more money if they would stop doing some of the things that only harm themselves – which isn’t much different than the way AA is still run

  11. I want to believe this but not sure I can given that as a thought leader you publish AlphaFox posts about MAGA hat incidents on planes that actually never happened. You know, AlphaFox, the Russian troll machine that pumps out glorious takes on the American political climate by staging fake incidents.

    Never before did the old saying, “consider the source” ring so true. Your credibility on even legitimate analysis is waning fast, Gary.

  12. My wife and I have flown our last American Airlines. They are so bad that transatlantic, they bumped to Iberia which is normal who bumped us to a company called level which only has four or five planes in service and it is no more than a farm truck with wings.
    We contracted with American Airlines we did not contract with this farm truck company. They have screwed us over for the last time. Good luck everyone

  13. Heads need to start rolling in upper management. Vasu Raja was a good start. Get rid of these types of people that are push overs and have no idea what they are doing. Also, fire the people who allow these people get in these important roles. Next get rid of facility maintenance something that so easy to outsource and a department that isn’t apart of the airpline.

  14. One wonders what AA plans to do with the new terminal being built for them at DFW, adding more eggs in that basket. It’s a transfer-only terminal with no parking, so it’s not the best for originating/terminating traffic. More cities? Higher frequencies? Unless they can fix the delays and cancellations, is going to be hard to fill that terminal. They can’t fix Texas weather.

  15. @Gary…
    I think it would be interesting to see an analysis of AA pre-US Airways management takeover and post.

  16. Gary, isn’t it amazing how much more flying AAL does and still does not produce even close to the revenue of the other too. It’s just astonishing. They seem to always be focused on the “long term” but when does the short become important for them?

  17. Anyone can go to flightaware live cancellations and actually see how all the US and foreign airlines are doing with their operations for the past few days. There is nothing noteworthy about AA’s operation. Like all the other major US airlines, they will almost certainly get you where you want to go absent a bad weather event. The US airline that performs best every day is the one whose hub has not had bad weather that day. Picking one major US airline over another based on on time or cancellations would be foolish. Book the cheapest and/or fastest flight and you will be better off, unless your irrational psyche requires something else.

  18. AA’s in total meltdown this summer. Past 4 flights have all been delayed multiple hours and self-service tools have been useless.

  19. chopsticks,
    your statement about the weather impact is only partially correct.
    Yes, Texas has had enormous weather impact over the past month but it also comes down to how each airline schedules its network and hubs even in bad weather.
    AA converted its network to tightly scheduled banks in order to improve the ability to sell connections and it is much harder to recover from IROPS in a tightly banked vs. in a rolling hub. ATL is a hybrid but much more of a rolling hub
    AA doesn’t have the recovery capabilities built into its schedule when the evitable ATC delays hit.
    You can look at the difference between how well AA and DL recovers at ATL vs. CLT given how close they are and often get similar weather. ATL gets far less ATL delays and recovers faster.
    People talk about DL’s revenue advantage in its hubs but the real advantage is that DL controls such a high percentage of flights in its hubs that it can build the schedule that works for them and knows the weather history and produces workable schedules which fall apart only when there is major ATC delays that last for half a day or more.
    And as we have seen w/ B6, having backup resources makes a huge difference in how well you do in IROPS. They have spare planes and pilots and ended up in 3rd place nationwide and are chalking up daily on-time stats as good as the big 3 even in NYC when it is hit by ATC. B6′ problem was always that it tried to push its scheduled and resources to hard and that never worked given that NYC has regular ATC delays.

    just as with B6, AA is afraid of losing revenue by leaving more flexibility in its schedule including selling short connecting times and the result is much more difficulty in getting the operation back on track and much more passenger inconvenience

  20. The Departament of transportation should revise the the estatute. Before, traveler had the right to dispach 1 luggage and for International flights even 2 up to 32 kg with free choice of seat. Now the services are awful and passengers pay extra for everything. Also the cost for a ticket is increasing. To travel nowadays is for the strong one not the weak. The stress, hassel and disconsideration for passengers wrights are frequent not an excepcition

    Please stop this trend
    Back to the old model when if you buy a ticket is included everything. CEOs are making a fortune early 30 M or more in bonus and employees can’t even afford to have a place to live. This become a new way of slavery? Please Congress men/women, stop this non sence.

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