Dealing With American Airlines as Operations Melt Down in Snow

I was supposed to fly home from Washington National to Charlotte to Austin yesterday afternoon. It looked to me like I would misconnect in Charlotte, and the later Charlotte – Austin flight was sold out. I started looking for alternatives.

  • American Airlines had not posted a delay for my flight to Charlotte. It’s never a good idea to wait until they tell you you’re delayed to do something about it. I’ve been writing for four years about how American Airlines doesn’t update super obvious delays, often until posted departure time has passed.

  • You want to be looking at where your inbound aircraft is coming from. An easy way to see it is to look up your flight at and click ‘Where is my plane now?’ or ‘track inbound plane’ links. That doesn’t tell you with 100% certainty because occasionally the airline will change which plane is operating which flight, but it tells you most of the time what to expect.

  • Even before my inbound aircraft showed delayed I knew that it was almost certain to delay because of a ground hold for planes flying to my airport. You can see air traffic control system status on the FAA website.

Initially just American Airlines planes were being held at origin due to lack of gates at National airport. Eventually the ground hold was expanded to all airlines.

I wanted to get on a flight where the inbound aircraft was already heeded to National airport, rather than one that hadn’t taken off yet. I chose to fly to Dallas Fort-Worth and then to Austin. The aircraft was showing minutes out from DC, and I headed to the airport.

  • I got to the airport, went through security and to the gate.
  • There was an aircraft deicing there.
  • It was only at boarding time that the airline announced we had no aircraft — our plane had diverted to Richmond. That’s the ultimate expression of American Airlines operations. It was obvious we couldn’t board and would not depart on time when there was no aircraft, indeed the aircraft was diverting, but they didn’t post a delay.

I headed up to the American Airlines club. One agent there, Maryann, is a miracle. Somehow she still has native Sabre access and hasn’t been forced onto Qik.

I was going to misconnect in Dallas. There weren’t any quicker ways to get home with space open. And there weren’t any seats on the remaining four Dallas – Austin flights either.

So I kept hitting refresh on Expertflyer and a seat opened up on the 7 p.m. Dallas – Austin. I went to the desk and sought help from one of the agents, he couldn’t see the seat. I waited for Maryann to finish what she was doing, and she grabbed it for me. Somehow Qik restricts agents from seeing that one seat, at least on several of the flights I came up with yesterday.

She also backed me up on DC – Miami – Austin, which wouldn’t get me back until after 10. I decided to make the call on which itinerary I wanted once I saw whether my inbound Dallas aircraft took off from Richmond as scheduled. If it did, DC – Dallas – Austin would get me back two hours earlier.

The aircraft got back in the air just a little while after expected and came into DC. Everyone went to the gate, American didn’t post a delay but the plane sat on the ground. The assigned gate had an aircraft from a flight that had been cancelled, and our aircraft had nowhere to go. I headed back to the club because I was now going to misconnect. I was refreshing Expertflyer, waiting until one seat opened up on a Dallas – Austin flight. Maryann got me moved onto the 8:30 p.m. (If you don’t have access to Expertflyer they offer a 5 day free trial, or you can just search the airline’s website to see whether they’ll sell you a seat on a given flight.)

Our aircraft got a new gate. Everyone waited until boarding time – which is when they announced two of our flight attendants had timed out. The flight attendants were always going to time out prior to departure, but no one noticed or announced it. Back to the club.

Every time it looked like I was going to misconnect in Dallas I’d get an app update and an email from American telling me I had rebooking options. Clicking the link my only option was to cancel my itinerary.

There were no open seats Dallas – Austin at 9:30 p.m. or 10:50 p.m. Nothing was opening up. It was 5 o’clock and Maryann was going to take her lunch, but she hung around and kept checking on me while another agent helped.

  • There were seats Chicago – Austin, but I couldn’t get to Chicago
  • There were seats Philadphia – Austin, but i couldn’t get to Philadelphia

Finally one seat opened on the DC – Chicago flight scheduled to depart in 28 minutes. I got booked onto it, but check-in was restricted so we got that opened up. The seat map was under gate control so the club agent walked down to the gate with me and issued a boarding pass from there. I was on my way.

I even had 15A to Chicago, exit row window. I’ve forgotten just how comfortable the coach seats are on American’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft with overhead screens. They have padding.

Once in Chicago I even had time to grab Tortas Frontera for dinner. My go-to is the choriqueso.

Ultimately that DC – Dallas flight that originally looked like it was on time didn’t depart DC until 7 p.m. I wouldn’t have made a 9:30 p.m. connection anyway. And it looks like I wouldn’t have gotten onto the late Charlotte – Austin flight either had I kept my original DC – Charlotte flight. I took the only available way home.

DC weather was the problem. It snowed throughout the day. De-icing slows everything down. And cancelled and delayed flights at gates means there’s nowhere to put arriving aircraft. With Maryann’s help in the club I always had a plan to get home.

Where American didn’t do well was updating passengers. That makes it hard to plan and exercise better options. It appears they didn’t plan well for crew either. But they got me home. It was almost thirteen hours door to door and a lot of changing flights, so I wasn’t able to just sit around and be productive during the delay. Nonetheless I’ve had far worse travel days and there’s little to complain about.

American ought to be especially skilled at handling irregular operations. Not only do they hub at Chicago O’Hare, but their largest hub DFW is said to stand for Doesn’t Function Wet.

I made it into Austin a little after 11. Uber wanted $44 to take me home, Lyft $22.50. Always worth comparing, knowing what a trip should cost, I liked it much better when Uber actually told you they were doing surge pricing. Now they get far fewer complaints being like Delta award redemptions, giving consumers less information.

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. My two step process in situations like this on AA and living in Austin is:

    1) Get to DFW.
    2) Let CSR travel insurance handle the hotel at DFW if I get stuck.

    I’d MUCH rather be physically in DFW the next day waiting for a flight rather than ORD.

  2. Gary, to clarify – on your backup DC-MIA-AUS itinerary, this was a secondary “reservation” in addition to DCA-DFW-AUS? And is a “backup” available to everyone during IRROPS or only ExPlats/CK? Thanks.

  3. AA needs to stop with their ridiculous restrictions on changing flights through the app. Same rules as SDFC until your flight cancels. The reason UA and DL are so much better in IRROPs is because they empower their customers to proactively plan and make decisions with ease.

    Yes communication needs to be improved but you can be fantastic in this regard but this won’t change the customers’ circumstance since nearly everything has to be handled by an AA employee.

  4. “I even had 15A to Chicago, exit row aisle. I’ve forgotten just how comfortable the coach seats are on American’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft with overhead screens.“

    15A is a window seat. 🙂

  5. @Leigh – this was a backup set of flights in my reservation, something that the agents in the club will do but not something you can generally get phone agents to do

  6. Tortas Frontera… yum. Only good thing about ORD for me. There used to be one in downtown SF, but closed a few years ago.

  7. @Golfingboy

    Yep and this is compounded by the fact AA has ridiculous SDFC rules that require the same routing. If they actually prioritized customers they would know folks just want to get home.

    When big storm systems slam the country you want as many options as possible (like Gary’s MIA option even if it wasn’t the most direct). If your connection point is the issue you are royally hosed unless you get a friendly agent.

  8. Not being too familiar with the logistics of IAD versus DCA, does the commute out to IAD negate any benefits from the offered IAD-AUS nonstops? Will that change when the train to IAD starts?

  9. But they got me home.

    No, you got you home.

    Initially just American Airlines planes were being held at origin due to lack of gates at National airport. Eventually the ground hold was expanded to all airlines.

    I’m sure there’s a logical reason for this, but if I were AA I certainly wouldn’t want only my flights held.

  10. Our flight CLT-MSP scheduled to depart ~10:45 p on 1/31 got delayed until 2 am and then because of no 1st officer delayed u til 9 am on 2/1. We spent the night in the airport. Ugh.

  11. I was connecting DFW-AUS this week on the last flight of the evening and of course it was delayed due to late aircraft early in the day causing a cascade of delays. AA operations could be much better.

  12. I used to fly out of DCA for ten years for work and became good friends with Maryann. She’s an awesome employee who actually cares about customer service. Many times I’d have a flight cancel I’d go back to the club and she have me rebooked on a new flight and with a cleared upgrade. The day she retires will be the end of the old American at DCA, which actually gave a damn about customer service to its loyal customers.

  13. @Mark DCA is super convenient to everything. The biggest issue with getting out to IAD is that it could take as little as 45 minutes if everything goes well, but the highways are often parking lots. I suppose it’s a function of whether you consider AA more or less reliable than nova traffic + UA. The silver line might make things better, except that wmata is a hot mess, too.

  14. Southwest flight 196 from DCA departed on time at 4:55p yesterday and arrived in Austin at 7:19p, 26 minutes early. Just saying… glad you made it home and I’m looking forward to reading your post explaining your loyalty to AA.

  15. I have never encountered any Admirals Club staffer who gave a damn. They all look at me with a “Well????” expression on their faces and always sigh when I ask them to print a paper copy of my BP. LAX AC’s are probably the worst and the exception is HNL.

    I would love to encounter someone like MaryAnn. I’d bring her chocolates, but she seems to be the rare encounter.

  16. Gary: What you described is how USAirways used to run their operation: no information to the passengers, crews become overclocked just after boarding aircraft, flights that are delayed 5 times and ultimately cancelled. The current AA management perfected this style of operation.

  17. Great post and much like delays I’ve experienced in the past. What always strikes me in these situations is that you had great help, are an expert flyer, know how to work delays, had Maryann, had club access, have status all working for you and managed to hack yourself home. But what happens to the average passenger due to poor management, weather, systems, etc. They get stuck overnight or worse. I feel that they intensionally don’t give proper delay updates so they don’t panic the passengers and overwhelm the gate or phone agents. It’s like sitting at the gate and all of a sudden 3 more agents show up randomly (never a good sign).

    I do my best in these situations but usually my first goal is to get to the closest or warm weather hub in Hope of a connection or better next day options.

  18. Please please please stop flying that junk airline. We’re tired to hear about your disavventures with it.

    And boy that “food” is seriously gross. Made me lose my appetite.

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