Navigating the Turbulence: American Airlines’ 36-Hour Marathon and How to Dodge Flight Delays

American Airlines has been performing more reliably than they have in recent years, but their operations still degrade. You’ll often find that the least reliable flights are:

  • Late in the day. Delays over the course of a day stack up. If a plane or crew are delayed on their second flight of the day, then the third one will probably be delayed and the fourth. And each delay can be additive. By the end of the day crew may also ‘time out’ exceeding their maximum contractual duty hours. (Late night arrivals also affect first flight of the next day, as crew may need to meet their minimum rest – delaying the first flight they’re working the next day.)

  • End of the month. Airlines that have operational challenges during the month may use up the crew that they have working ‘reserve’ and won’t have backup crew to work flights when employees call out sick or get stuck somewhere on a trip.

Whenever possible it’s best to avoid bad weather, congested airspace, and and night time domestic flights. (For long haul international, crew will be fresh for the flight.)

The month ended with some challenges for American Airlines. One passenger took five attempts across 36 hours to make it to his destination.

Meanwhile one of the worst ordeals on American I’ve seen comes from Sheri Arcuria. She flies out of Bakersfield and found herself diverted from Dallas to Oklahoma City where she had a long tarmac delay and an overnight, and she found herself with a long delay in Phoenix. The thing to understand about Dallas – Fort Worth is that it (D)oesn’t (F)unction (W)et.

She chronicled her attempt to fly American Airlines – and ultimately to get an apology for her ordeal – in a series of videos. And, I think, there are important lessons along the way.

She sat on the ground in Oklahoma City for three hours and had a medical emergency. Then she waited, in her telling, 45 minutes in line for vouchers for a hotel room.

Much of the time airlines don’t give you hotel rooms you’d want to stay in. Those are too expensive. This woman’s hotel room door did not close. She did manage to get changed to another room. She never got to sleep, though, and the hotel’s airport shuttle runs just once an hour which cut into her chances, too.

She was rebooked with a 9 hour connection in Dallas. (If you have a Priority Pass card that’s not actually all bad.) But a seat opened up for a shorter connection of just 30 minutes.

If you’re not at the gate 15 minutes prior to departure, your seat is subject to being released. By the time she made it to her connecting flight, her seat was given away to another passenger. Fortunately doors hadn’t closed yet and they had another seat to assign her.

Out of Phoenix she ran to make a 30 minute connection across two concourses. She didn’t check her gate, went simply off of her boarding pass, and arrived to find that her flight’s gate had changed. She didn’t miss it though! That flight went mechanical. She returned to the concourse where she landed and had plenty of time for McDonald’s.

In the end she was offered points for her inconvenience. She thought someone should call her and hear her out. They upped the offer to a $100 travel credit, and eventually after complaining further she was offered $250. The woman on the phone told her she wasn’t entitled to anything and clearly she wanted someone to hear her out and to apologize. They struck the exact wrong tone. Someone should have said ‘We screwed up, we’re sorry, all we’re allowed to do is offer _____. I understand that doesn’t compensate you for the experience.’ That wouldn’t tell the customer their experience was ‘only worth’ the modest compensation provided.

There are several important lessons here:

  • Don’t wait for the hotel room that the airline will give you free. Save yourself time and book something yourself.

  • My read of most credit card-provided trip delay coverage is that waiting for an inadequate room isn’t required as a step to mitigate insurance losses. I’ve never had a problem submitting claims for trip delay coverage when meeting eligibility criteria. The card you use to buy your tickets matters.

  • You can’t control weather, and when you’re on the aircraft there’s not a lot you can do. Don’t rely on a once an hour hotel shuttle. That transportation may be covered by trip delay benefits, but either way try to assume that travel is going to be more costly than than just the ticket. If you’re in a position to self-insure, do it, and pay for the Uber. (Verify availability of Uber and Lyft, and how long those take to arrive, wherever you happen to be traveling.)

  • Check your gate. Use the airline’s mobile app, which will usually push updates.

  • Ultimately you’re on your own, though you rely on the kindness of strangers (often including airline agents). Be as nice as humanly possible. Say please and thank you. Maintain good humor, and people will be more inclined to help.

Do your own research on flight options and suggest alternatives, politely. Know that available seats change all the time, so keep checking for something better. And always keep moving – away from whatever bad weather is going on.

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. To be accurate, AA is improving its operation in good weather but they still do a poor job in IROP recovery.
    DFW is far enough north that it will get significant amounts of bad weather in both the summer and winter.
    Expectations are that Texas can keep the energy flowing this winter; they dodged a bullet this summer with the insufferable heat.

  2. It’s also helpful to check the airline’s website before the first leg as often if bad weather is expected in or out of a hub there will be an offer to make a change to the itinerary without charge. On another matter, keep a snack or protein bar with you for those times when getting a proper meal gets delayed.

  3. It sounds like you have to pack for a multi-day backpacking trip on American airlines these days. Maybe a post of how to fit in enough food and clothes in a carry-on to do it. I guess you use your toiletries in the airport bathrooms to take a washcloth bath.

  4. Box of hiking bars and a reusable water bottle will go a long way to making everything OK. I’ve never had apocalyptic travel, but have had my fair share of overnight delays. Also agree with the idea of doing your own booking. Was put by AA in a Motel 6 a decade ago for an overnight delays in DFW. It was brutal (no sleep). Learned my lesson. Would rather pay and gamble on insurance recovery later.

  5. It would help if AA didn’t have 850-900 daily flight @DFW. OR if AA kept a crew together. Instead of mixing and matching crews across the network to meet in DFW.

  6. AA was decent enough to give her a hotel room (ok may be a lousy one, but at least they tried).

    Last May P2 and I were flying Delta DUB-BOS-SFO. There were storms in Boston and DL’s flight schedule fell apart. There was ONE rep TRAINING another one (!) with line that took 2.5 hours to get to the counter where she proceeded to say that they did not give out hotel rooms for weather cancellations and to go online to rebook. (While in line I had already done that; was waiting just for hotel vouchers).

    The flights they got us were 30 hour later than our original departures and we were downgraded from Business into Economy. The tickets had been purchased separately; I wrote IDENTICAL letters for reimbursement on P2 got $1,600 of Delta funny money. P1 got ZIPPO. Still working on resolving this…but DL’s reputation for customer service is IMHO highly overrated.

  7. @rj123456

    Delta’s reputation is that of a business with low customer satisfaction, barely above cable TV companies, but one that sucks far less than almost all of its competitors. And that they do.

  8. I know that not everyone will (or wants to) carry a credit card that provides travel protection. But the reputations of airlines and unpredictable weather should be enough for folks to really consider that $28-dollar (domestic) trip protection that is offered when you check out, it can really make a shitty situation, a little less so.

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