Leaked Recording: American’s Top Executives Weigh In On The Operational Mess Of Their India Flights

American Airlines launched its New York JFK – Delhi flight, marking its return to India, but it’s been plagued by massive problems. They haven’t been granted the right to fly over Russia, and so the flight takes two hours longer than flights on other airlines. That means more fuel and more crew and the plane has frequently had to take a diversion – further lengthening the trip and inconveniencing passengers.

Right now fares would have to be a lot lower for anyone to want to fly American over even Air India, let alone United from Newark. Addressing the issues has been a company-wide priority for the airline.

Some have assumed the problem was that American just blew it and failed to apply for the proper overflight rights, but that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. Instead it’s likely caught up in diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Russia especially over Ukraine.

At an internal meeting last week, a recording of which was reviewed by View From The Wing, American’s CEO-designate Robert Isom explained the issue.

I’m going to talk about Russian overfly, or lack thereof, and the impact on our business. We’d like to be doing actually more flying to India than we are. We’ve delayed the Bangalore flight which is critical to the West Coast international alliance in supporting our partner Alaska Airlines. That’s been a problem. We’ve launched obviously New York – Delhi but it hasn’t been easy by any stretch.

You know Kimball [Stone, Senior Vice President — Flight Operations] tells me quite often, we have a team – what are we flying Kimball, almost 6000 flights a day? We have 5999 flights that operate you pretty much well and then we have one flight that requires everybody’s attention.

So I want to spend some time talking about that. And who am I going to hand it off to first, I have some special guests here. Let me start with Molly. Molly, why don’t you tell us what you do in your day job and then your involvement with the India flying here.

Molly Wilkinson, American’s Vice President and Head of Regulatory and International Government Affairs, explained how they’re pressing for government assistance with Russian overflight,

I and my team work with Department of Transportation, Department of State, the White House, NSC all of those folks. So basically our regulators. And that’s who we’ve been engaged with, really our partners, particularly at DOT on working to engage the Russians on getting the permissions for the Russian overflights. We’ve been engaged on this conversation for months, not only us but other carriers, in seeking those permissions.

And the good news is Alaska and JetBlue have also joined with us in our advocacy in seeking those permissions for the JFK-Delhi flight and for Seattle-Bangalore. It’s been incredibly frustrating. The Russians have been difficult at times to get return calls with. DOT has been a tremendous leader on that as well at working on trying to engage the Russians. …

Typically in the past these overflight approvals have come in at the last minute. This year that has not happened. Unclear as to why. And that’s something that they’re also trying to seek with the Russians. So that’s where we stand.

And JonCarlo Gulbranson, Senior Vice President – Airport Operations talked about the complexities of operating the airline’s longest current flight and taking two hours longer than needed to fly,

Even without the approval we can operate this flight reliably, but it is more complex. The flight is our longest in the system. It’s approaching 17 hours block-to-block…some of the things that we’re doing…

We’re having daily briefings with our crews on the outbound to prepare them for the return flight both cockpit and cabin crew. We’re having daily briefings between the station and IOC to ensure that we’re ready from a weight and balance perspective and a flight plan perspective. And then the local folks are talking to local ATC to try to ensure we get prioritized handling.

On top of that we’re taking other measures like we’ve changed temporarily the cutoff time for check-in to 75 minutes to give us more time to process weight and balancing. We’re de-prioritizing cargo. We’re asking for volunteers every day even if we don’t need them up front just in case we have a change in weight and balance right near departure so we’re ready to remove some weight from the flight plan.

And then on top of that, in case all that doesn’t work out, we’ve got a contingency plan to stop enroute. So we can operate this flight reliably. We had a couple of challenges early on. One of those happened to be a medical emergency. But overall we can and will operate this flight reliably.

Robert Isom asked Brian Znotins, Vice President of Network and Schedule Planning, to weigh in on “why we’re doing this.”

Ultimately we will get Russian overfly. It may take longer than we like. And certainly in my twenty-plus years in the business Russian overfly has never been an issue. It always came last minute. It was something that was normal. Russian overfly would come the night before, you’d launch the service, and you’d go along and whether you’re flying to China or Hong Kong or India all of those routes require Russian overfly.

In other to be a big player in New York we have to serve the big O&D’s. Of course we serve London very well. But as you work your way down the list India is one of the biggest U.S. points and New York points we didn’t serve in our network…

We’d rather not cancel the service at this point and not fly it at all rather than just take the longer routing because we have passengers booked on the flight who bought tickets… going forward it plays an important role in our network strategy and it plays an important role in our alliance with JetBlue who’s looking for an international presence out of New York much like Alaska is looking for an international presence out of Seattle and we can provide that. But at the end of the day we want to fly airplanes where we can make money and India is a really great opportunity for us to make money in the long run.

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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  1. If you are asking for volunteers and have a high likelihood of fuel stops, you aren’t operating “this flight reliably.”

  2. In other words –
    1. American is losing its shirt on its DEL flight and no self-respecting traveler is going to choose American given other options. There is a timeframe where AA cannot sustain the losses any longer and the call contents show that. It was always an option to pull the flight before it ever started because overflight authorizations were not received. American has operated flights as long as JFK-DEL are w/o overflight restrictions but they have to plan for that and not keep hoping for a shortcut that won’t materialize.
    2. International aviation has always been a subset of international diplomatic relations. Russia will be selling gas to Europe but US airlines can’t reliably get overflight authorizations over the largest piece of needed international airspace. To say that the U.S. diplomatically is in a worse position than it has been in years is not an exaggeration – and airlines will pay the price.
    3. United is the winner here insomuch as India traffic exists. American was convinced it would horn in on the India market that UA has owned for years and the backfire couldn’t be more obvious. Given continued travel restrictions to/from India, there probably isn’t the demand to fill even United’s flights profitably.

  3. Flew JFK-DEL-JFK last week, and luckily didn’t have any flight issues. I actually preferred the slightly longer flight times for the extra sleep, and would take AA over AI any day (maybe even UA as I prefer AA’s 77W seats to Polaris). Can’t beat $700 r/t with SWUs confirmed at booking!

  4. Note that she mentioned the White House and the NSC in the group she bunched together as “the regulators” of relevance for what is going on with this AA flight.

  5. “If we have to offload you at Gander or Timbuktu, we will refund a portion of your ticket 6 weeks later, provided you made it back alive on your own.– America West, aka AA

  6. Thank you Gary for responding when needed to the people who comment
    though reading through the obnoxious stuff I imagine is a chore.
    I especially enjoy the comment and follow option. Thanks!

  7. Epic fail. Just their PR spin for not doing their job at the top. In the meantime, all of the DEL flights are oversold going and coming. One of them has 42 oversales. What does AA intend to do to help these people? Bottom line….it is called corporate greed for a failed route that has barely started. Collecting revenue for seats that they do not have. They cannot even supply the flights with proper catering on a good day. Fire the top directors and replace them with competent management.

  8. I flew jfk to del round trip in the first week of may, and really enjoyed it. In retrospect, AA not getting Soviet overflight may have been ok.. the other airlines, except Air India, are now having to take the longer route too.

    The route is like threading a needle..after Germany and Poland, Hungary, AA skirts the Black Sea, flying just below Ukraine ( further south than the shortest distance ), and slightly north of turkey. Then they need to avoid Iranian airspace, so stay a little more north than they need to, before heading down to Delhi.

    The food, inflight entertainment, lie flat beds in business, we’re excellent. I would fly AA over any other airline, incl Qatar, Emirates etc,.

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