American Airlines’ Goldilocks Problem: Boards too Early, Updates Delays Too Late. They Need to Be Just…

I love many things about American Airlines. First and foremost is the AAdvantage program, and especially that I’m well taken care of as an Executive Platinum member (100,000 mile flyer).

Their lounge agents have been exceptionally good to me during irregular operations. I even like their revenue management, which doesn’t release all first class seats into upgrade a day before departure. When a flight irregularity happens, and I get put onto another flight, it’s even still possible to get an upgrade (and more frequently happens than not).

If there were two things I would change about the operation, I would actually bundle them together and call them American’s Goldilocks Problem: they start boarding too early, before scheduled time, and they notify passengers of delays.. in creeping fashion.. usually only after a boarding or departure time has passed (in other words, ‘too late’).

Instead, American really needs to get this ‘just right’.

American Regularly Starts Boarding Flights Prior to Scheduled Time

It seems they’ve imported this from US Airways. I believe pushing for an on-time departure is good. If they’re going to start boarding earlier, though, they should simply change scheduling and posted boarding times to reflect this.

In order to ensure overhead space I used to turn up at the gate 30 minutes prior to departure for the start of boarding. Now when I do that half the plane or more is already onboard.

Do I need to turn up 35 or 40 minutes more in advance? I don’t really know.

I still tend to show up half an hour prior to departure. The next problem, though, is that American rarely seems to update flight times with irregular operations until scheduled boarding time. In other words, when I leave the lounge and get to the gate I learn I could have just stayed in the lounge.

Stick to your posted boarding times. If you want those to be earlier, publish them as starting earlier.

American Doesn’t Update Delays Until the Last Minute, Even When They’re Obvious

It seems that delays which are obvious to anyone tracking a flight do not become obvious at American Airlines until a specific time elapses. When published boarding time comes and goes, and there’s no aircraft at the gate, we’ll get an update. Of course we couldn’t possibly start boarding 10 minutes before that given the location of the aircraft, and that it still needs to land and taxi and offload passengers. Posting that information earlier would help passengers.

Last night my Dallas – Austin flight was delayed. The inbound aircraft was diverted to Austin. They posted a 20 minute delay 50 minutes prior to boarding when the plane was still on the ground in Austin.

Leave aside for a month that over an hour later that aircraft still would not have taken off from Austin.

  • At the point the inbound aircraft diverted, there was a thunderstorm over the area, and airport operations had ceased it was plainly obvious based on simple deductive reasoning that there was no theoretical way we’d depart on time unless of course they decided to prioritize an Austin flight (which they never do) and give us someone else’s aircraft (remember, the whole schedule was in disarray as flights weren’t able to land).

  • So unless there was a new tail number assigned to the flight, it just wasn’t gonna happen.

  • Not only didn’t they post the obvious delay earlier, they posted only a 20 minute delay. Again, simply not possible because even if the aircraft took off from Austin at that moment (which they had no reason to believe it would), they would only be wrapping up deplaning of the previous international flight by the time our new scheduled departure time came around.

I experience this with nearly every American Airlines delay. Just this past Tuesday I had the same creeping delay with a flight, as maintenance had to fix the cockpit door. When the scheduled boarding time passes, or scheduled departure time passes, that’s when estimated times will get updated — and usually in 10 or 15 minute increments, no matter how unreasonable. My tweets to @AmericanAir on this issue are legion.

American could improve its operation with a simple page from a children’s story — not too early, not too late, but just right.

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. You aren’t the only one. As I used to commute on SFO-DFW, there was a great chance of WX delays on either end. And even with 2 planes in front of it for the same gate, there would be no delay until 20 mins after the posted departure time. So annoying.

  2. My experience has been exactly the same. About 8 weeks ago, I was connecting through DFW the day of the snow/ice storm. We boarded the connection to OKC on time, but were immediately delayed at the gate. I then proceeded to receive a text message with a new departure time every 15 minutes for the next 4 hours (and anyone who paid attention to the media knows this turned into a 10 hour “flight” to OKC). I understand delays happen but A) we should never have boarded the flight due to the weather and B) all passengers want is a realistic expectation of departure. AA failed on both accounts.

  3. had this happen on two recent flights. Moreover, another annoying thing is when we’re sitting at the gate for departure with a mechanical problem and I’m getting text messages every 10-15 minutes and the pilot says nothing. Updates for those without phone service would be good.

  4. Just to echo what others are saying – I’ve experienced the exact same thing. Sometimes, google or kayak lets me know of a delay before AA even knows it has one.

  5. I won’t say this is from US Airways, the one time push ish, but the rollings delays are not.

    Cases like these are a key example why the lounge agents are worthwhile. Its easy to ask them where the inbound flight is coming from and you can be sure of your case. US was one of the slowest to adopt technology, EWR didn’t have check in kiosks in 2012…but the human interaction allowed you to ask, where is the inbound coming from? At a hub, like DFW anything can change, but at least the agent can tell you there is no plane at the gate and you have at least 15 min more in the lounge.

  6. Also agree….soo irritating to leave the lounge early only to find either there is no overhead bin space because they started boarding 45 min before scheduled departure OR there is a delay that isn’t on the monitors.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. On several recent flights, boarding is always expeditious and once everyone is on board, the flight attendant announces, “Boarding is complete.” Then, there is an eerie silence … [insert 3-5 minutes of silence here].

    On one flight: Captain announces that catering hasn’t replenished the galley, so there are no snacks, drinks on board. They’ve known this since the flight started to board but catering is ‘on its way.’ Captain decides to leave and as we were pushing back, the catering truck arrives. Not AA’s fault, but they gave a $12 food voucher upon arrival and 10,000 bonus miles.

    And another flight: Captain announces after boarding that a technician is on the way because a seat needs to be repaired. He’s on his way. Minutes later, the tech arrived, took less than 3 minutes to make the repairs and left.

    To me, these were minor events because I was on vacation and wasn’t on a time schedule. I’ll continue to fly AA as they get me to my destination safely.

  8. Yea, they need to stop the rolling 10-15 minute delays even though the delay is going to be longer than that. So annoying.

  9. I just deleted this blog from my feedly stream after years of subscribing. Send me an email if you ever stop truncating the RSS feeds and I’ll return. Its sad because this was one if the more informative travel blogs out there. BTW your site’s last 10 hits or so were from me searching to see if this issue is going to be fixed.

  10. This is a great example of why I fly on Delta not American. I absolutely do not trust American to operate on time.

  11. At a hub equipment swaps happen all the time. Your assigned inbound aircraft may have still been on the ground, but equipment assignments could have changed at any time and that coukd have allowed your flight to leave with little delay. Obviously no substitutions in this instance, but agree with AA with playing it safe. I can only read your irate post had AA moved departure by 2 hours, then back to almost on time and you missed the flight as a result.

    When this happens at an outstation with no possibility of equipment swaps, then that’s a real problem.

    BTW UA in the 90s was far worse with communicating delays. Far far worse, and was one of the reasons I started flying AA from a hub then split equally UAs and AA.

  12. @Gene —

    That’s a bit harsh. According to FlightStats data, you have a 23% higher chance of a late arrival of 15 minutes or more on AA than DL. Yep, DL is worse, but AA is no Frontier Airlines (68% higher chance of being “late”)

  13. @Gene this isn’t about on time performance (although Delta does a good job – not as good as Alaska, but good). This is about how things information is handled when they aren’t on time.

  14. Is there a credit card you could recommend which would help address this problem? 😉

  15. The complement to this is the ol’ US Airways schedule bloat. Where they schedule a 45 minute RJ flight at 1:30 and then take their sweet time dawdling around on the tarmac at either end knowing that they will be “on time”. The 35X departures at DCA are the bane of my flying existence. 30 minutes on that stupid bus while the driver makes circles trying to figure out which falling-apart Air Wisconsin RJ we’ll be on.

  16. This is a very tricky issue. You want to get the pax and the airplane to the gate at the right time. About 2 years ago, I had an Airtran flight that was posting a 2 hour delay. I really didn’t want to get to the airport that early (not even a lounge), but I was somewhat skeptical. I found the in-bound aircraft info, and it showed on time. I then determined it was an ATC ground hold. I thought that hold might be lifted (the weather looked fine). I chose to ignore the delay info. Sure enough, the aircraft left on time. Had I listened to Airtran’s website info, I would have missed the flight.

    Seems to me that if there’s an ATC hold, or if there’s a possibility of aircraft substitution, the likely-but-not-necessarily-accurate delay should NOT be posted. But if the aircraft is not going to be at the airport, and there’s no realistic chance of substitution, a realistic new departure time should be given to passengers.

  17. I was in my seat on a LAX-FLL redeye when I got a text that it was cancelled. After we sat at the gate without any kind of update for 20 minutes, I asked if anyone else had gotten that text. Others said yes. Still no Update. Seems the pilots had been pulled off the flight to fly a LAX-MIA widebody with more pax. Pretty soon people started getting up and exiting the plane, still with no word from the FA’s who seemed baffled. One agent at the gate had a long line, so I went to the rebook center and used the phone, found out I had to wait for first a.m. flight, though I could wait in the terminal even though TSA was closing.

    After wandering around for an hour, I see a special section has been added to Dallas, so ask GA if I can connect to FLL. No, but I can go to Miami instead via DFW arriving 10 am. I pointed out that I could have done that if we’d been notified the pilots were being switched to MIA flight.

  18. Good post. I agree completely, although I think the super-early boarding has been around longer than the US merger. Especially at DFW, where for years now I’ve regularly walked up to the gate at T-30 to find them boarding group 3 with no space for bags in the F cabin.
    Due to the way they handle these rolling delays, whenever I’m on a DFW-AUS that announces a delay, I get off and switch to the next one. 9 times out of 10 that next flight gets in first.

  19. This happened to me all the time when flying AA no matter the weather. It could be a clear day and it’s obvious we’re not boarding since it’s 10 minutes to departure time and there’s no aircraft at the game. I get annoyed with AA in DFW (the world headquarters) and there aren’t any spare planes. Seems odd to me that at your WORLD HEADQUARTERS you don’t have any backups. I understand Denver or Phoenix, but DFW?

    When weather ensues it’s even worse. I’ve experienced for myself instances where the slow creep kept going for several hours and when all of your other options have expired THEN AA cancels the flight. When I travel for work and I can see these significant delays unless I absolutely have to get home, I just find an agent, move to a flight the next day and go check into a hotel. It’s not worth the aggravation and stress to be sitting in an airport at the gate (because the lounge is closed) where 40 seats exist for a plane of 125 people. Just walk away.

  20. I agree whole-heartedly with you on how bad AA is about posting accurate delay information. Not sure what their motivation is to do it the way they do. Any ideas?

    Personally, I like it when they board early. I fly the same routes a lot so I’m able to predict which ones do pretty well. I agree it would be better if they just made it earlier across the board and indicate so across the board. In many cases, 30 minutes just isn’t enough time.

  21. Before the merger, US Airways was starting to get better about announcing delays. Gate agents would get on the PA every 30 minutes or so to update people even when they had nothing new to report. This might have been frustrating for gate agents but as a passenger it was nice to know that there was no change from the last announcement. It made the pax feel as though we were part of the process; and I thought the communications reflected an excellent human factors approach to delay that cost very little to implement but helped to manage customer expectations.

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