No Discretion: American’s CEO Wants Pilots to Do What They’re Told and Leave Exactly On Time

Last month at an American Airlines employee question and answer session a flight attendant raised his getting in trouble for taking a 14 minute delay because international first class hadn’t gotten any plates (“Like I’m going to shut the door and have a first class service to Brazil with no china plates, I just set the tins in front of them.”).

At the time the airline’s President acknowledged there are times it’s necessary to take a delay in order to provide the service that’s been promised to customers, if the airline isn’t able to get the rest of its processes working properly.

At this past Thursday’s employee Q&A airline CEO Doug Parker was not as open to this idea. A DFW-based captain asked Parker about ‘D0’. He said the airline’s emphasize on exactly on-time departures, and the processes around questioning decisions and following up when they miss exact on-time departures “feels punitive on all the people.”

The pilot went on,

When I’m on a gate as a captain I know my gate agent feels pressure to get that airplane off the ground, there’s pressures from every direction doing feels punitive, when my boss calls me up, there’s 5 chiefs here I’m one of 3000 pilots, when my boss calls me up and asks me information it feels punitive to me, that gate agent it feels punitive to them.

There’s a lot of pressure to depart exactly on time no matter what, and Parker acknowledged “the way we’re getting there does feel punitive at times.”

Parker went on to explain why employees shouldn’t use discretion to do what they think is right, they should defer to the people at the airline whose job it is to make the decision to delay a departure based on all the available information. The airline may decide to hold a flight or not, but it shouldn’t be up to a pilot or a gate agent to make that choice. Parker explained,

[It] may look to any one of us at that point in time from our spot in the world like it isn’t necessarily the right decision, you can make up time in the air or this is the last flight of the day or things like that, we have people sitting not far from here at IOC who really do have all that information.

It may not be perfect but better than any one of us can possibly have at any point in time, that knows things like you can make up time in the air the fact that you’re sitting on the gate right now is keeping someone else from getting to the gate… and [some of those passengers] are trying to connect to a last flight of the day.

All sorts of reasons why the right thing for us to do as an airline is to make sure all of us are working together to get everything just to push at zero, and letting people that have all the information decide ‘ok this we can wait on because we are waiting for 30 people to come in from a different flight, and this one we’ll hold and this one we won’t.’

He knows that the D0 emphasis involves “a lot of stress,” he says that Delta does this well. And he wasn’t willing to give an inch on D0.

The problem though is that American holds its employees accountable for exact on time departures but they haven’t got the rest of their processes to the point they’re reliable enough to deliver everything that’s needed prior to departure time — whether it’s processing upgrades when premium passengers don’t show up for a flight, or it’s caterers failing to deliver everything that’s supposed to be on board.

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. I seem to recall Eastern Airlines applying enormous pressure on pilots. What happened? Pilots making poor decisions, a number of crashes and it maybe the pressure was a factor in the demise of Eastern Airlines.

  2. Parker to employees: You are just cogs in my profit machine. Stop thinking like individuals!

  3. I guess from an arms length, I can see both “sides” on that I can easily see times and cases where I myself could justify taking a delay (and one that meets the DOT definition so I counts against the carrier) so that everything that is needed for a successful service (i.e. missing catering, late bags, non-required cabin maintenance) is competed…. I can see a very clear service reason for a delay…

    I can also see the cost side… be that missed downline connections, network schedule integrity issues, added labour costs, fuel (i.e. If running off APU and not gate/ground power) …. so I can see a potential cost issue too…

    I can also see where opening up discretion can allow the possibility of using the cover of “we took it as a service delay” as a means to possibly ‘stick it’ to your employer (i.e. purposely taking a delay) and knowing that it will be very hard for them (employer) to refute your ‘service delay’ claim, and move to a disciplinary matter.

    So, I’m torn here…

    On the whole, I support discretion by front line staff and I think when properly rolled out with quality pre-roll out training and post-roll out support, the overwhelming percentage of staff will use it right.. because it really is to their benefit and not a detriment… and while there will probably be some who misuse it – at least given the small numbers, it should be easy to drill down and determine if those misuses were due to legitimate knowledge/training issues .. or.. were they deliberate misuse cases.

  4. The follow-up questions should have been:
    1) Herr Parker: how many of the processes impacting on-time departure are outsourced? Given at least catering, baggage handling, possibly gate agents et al are not American employees, what exactly have you and your management team done to impress upon these firms external to AA the relevance of time, i.e., open and revise contracts with penalties, etc?
    2) Herr Parker: How distant were you from a legacy carrier when a UA cockpit crew flew a crippled DC10 by their teeth to crash land in Iowa and save the majority of passengers? And what about Capt. Scully of USAir who perfectly landed his crippled jet on the Hudson?

    Being so emersed in numbers may have blinded Parker to the merits of marketing and customer experience; but surely he cannot be that naive to discourage the independent thinking and spirit of pilots that provides passengers with the confidence to fly AA?

    In parallel, Amtrak today strictly operates its diners along their designated meal serving hours. Before Amtrak took over and standardized every aspect of service, I was traveling eastbound on the All Pullman Santa Fe “Super Chief.” Waking up late and but 90 minutes from Chicago, the diner steward had the galley re-opened, fires re-lit, and had made for me a perfect hamburger and fries. Ya think for a moment that would ever happen these days?

    Their must be room for trusting the judgment of seasoned people to make the right call on the front line. To be so adverse to employee judgment, only tells me from my own C Suite experience that perhaps Parker missed that experience, or, even failed at it..?

  5. It’s interesting he brought up delta — sure, delta departs on time. The big difference regarding d0 is that on delta, a *passenger* never feels the pressure to get out on time (e.g. pre-departure beverages, welcoming utterances from the crew). On AA you absolutely feel the pressure and the rush to get on and shut the door.

  6. RE: Parker to employees: You are just cogs in my profit machine. Stop thinking like individuals!

    @RF’s comments are SPOT ON!

    Sounds like working at AA under this dictator where the “I, alone…” approach reigns supreme is about as pleasant for employees as flights aboard the stripped down crappy new 737-8 MAXes, or those hideous “densified” 777s and 787s (among others such as the dilapidated cabins on 767s) are for passengers.

    I just LOVE oligopoloies! Doesn’t everyone?

    …Dougie sure does!

    Our airline industry’s current, if unspoken, unofficial logo:

    I ❤️ Oligopolies!

  7. @Rail Provocateur, so much, especially the first part re impacts of outsourcing (largely done to break unions and cut wages, benefits, etc., which often results in less qualified, less motivated staff).

    Sadly, it does seem increasingly common at airlines, and many other industries, where front line/customer facing employees’ hands are tied to do ANYTHING even when they know there’s a serious problem that in the past, when they had the authority to correct/remedy, they now cannot.

    Sometimes, they apologize profusely, or even attempt to intervene on one’s behalf, only to find themselves experiencing the same brick wall through internal channels, that one encounters when they attempt to resolve matters through call centers, online chat functions, emails, or now even Twitter where one often is directed to delete their tweets and send DMs that either meet the same fate as their other efforts where the person “kills you with kindness” (or even “empathasizes”) but in the end, NOTHING HAPPENS!

    That, or they simply never get back to you unless you basically chase them relentlessly.

    So, is it any surprise this brutal, dictatorial, centralized from the corners of the C-suite “top down” style of management that is already spreading like wildfire on the customer service side, is now being phased into the employee relations side?

  8. First paragraph post immediately above should begin and end with:

    “So much, especially … … less motivated staff)” discussed in your first paragraph, plus the second one, too, is so true.

    Often hard to write/edit and see all errors until after posting using a mobile device, so apologies for the incomplete sentence in the original version!

  9. Pilots and other employee groups at AA (but really everywhere now) might be better equipped to understand the concepts and theories of SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT, or “TAYLORISM”, which is as vital and SPOT ON now, as it was originally in the late 1800s and early 1900s as centralized managements and industrialization was revolutionizing societies, production, and the distribution of wealth in the United States and elsewhere.

    Frederick Winslow Taylor’s book, “The Principles of Scientific Management”, was, and remains a seminal work on labor relations and is an indispensable source of information that will help a great many employees at all levels of a company, but especially those who now find themselves disempowered, and/or increasingly told to “shut up, do what the CEO and his/her direct minions demands – or risk losing your job”.

    What’s going on isn’t new at all.

    In fact, the oligopolies, and the increasingly common and flagrant abusive behaviors by companies towards consumer and lower level employees is hardly new at all.

    Taylor’s still very insightful analysis was done eons ago…

    …and Teddy Roosevelt certainly understood the dangers and corrosive impacts of companies that came to dominate and cartelize key sectors of our nation’s economy before he was elected president the way our nation’s airlines are now doing…

    As always, KNOWLEDGE is power…

    …and now more than ever, KNOWLEDGE about the types of things Frederick Winslow Taylor discussed in his exceptional work…

    …or the considerable efforts of Teddy Roosevelt to combat the ugly abuses by the Robber Barrons, bankers, and other industrial elites of the time that could exert excessive power to manipulate and control the nation’s economy for their own personal benefit that were the “Trusts” he sought to bust.

    Information that will allow us to better understand many of the issues faced today, and to better address them before they make things even worse than where things are now heading, is out there.

    For situations like this one, where pilots and other employees are being forced to follow management’s direction from the top unquestioningly, or face reprisals, even if they have reason in their professional judgement to believe otherwise (that for airlines does pose the concomitant risk of threats to safety), Frederick Winslow Taylor’s book(s) should be put at the top of your reading lists!!!

  10. I just laugh out loud at the derogatory comments about Doug Parker and the airline. When the merger was announced everyone thought it was utopia ent from heaven

  11. And we sat and waited for the captain for 45 minutes for an SFO -> ORD flight, flight fully loaded and otherwise ready to go. So much for D0. Maybe he needs to add wakeup calls for captains and other flight staff to his list. I only just made my connection.

  12. Seems to me that all Parker was saying that if a pilot or other staff want to delay a flight they should contact central scheduling to decide as they have a broader view of the impact a delay would have on other flights and operations. Central scheduling might say, it is fine to wait for the plates or they may say, if you delay 20 minutes another incoming plane full of customers needs your slot and is going to miss their last connections of the day because the other crew is going to hit mandatory crew rest, you are just going to have to go without the plates. Of course this is all assuming you got an intelligent, knowledgeable, reasonable, customer focused and smoothly functioning central scheduling office running.

  13. @Amapas Re: “When the merger was announced everyone thought it was utopia [s]ent from heaven”
    You’re kidding right?

    If you’re not you clearly didn’t do a lot of online reading in the months/days leading up to the “merger”. Flyertalk was just one of the many places awash with AA flyers railing against Parker/US Airways.

    A lot of thought we knew how bad things would be but, amazingly, it’s actually worse.

    I admit that there were those who vehemently disagreed with us naysayers and told us all just how dumb we all were and how Parker was what American Airlines and its flyers needed, but they were not a majority.

    That group are mostly very quiet on Flyertalk nowadays…..I wonder why?

  14. They should simply leave on time. Can’t tell you how many times I have sat in plane arriving on time at airport but late to gate as another plane not departing timely. Untimely departures have lots of negative consequences . Or missed flight as plane departed late for no apparent reason (waiting on first class china plates)

  15. Although I agree with Mr. Parker in principal, he is wrong, this is a classic symptom of being disconnected from the Frontline. Empowering your employees to use thier own judgment is key to success, employee morale and customer satisfaction, just ask any of the ladies and gentlemen of old school Ritz-Carlton…

    Also I would imagine that flight attendants more than anyone would like the plane to depart ontime bc as I understand it, they are not being paid until the door closes.

  16. AA boards at 30 minutes before. Not soon enough. I think United is 35 minutes. AA needs to move up the boarding time, and allow some more time on the ground between scheduled arrival and departure of the aircraft.

  17. Delta used to typically be 45 minutes before boarding (not sure if they still are). Especially when the airlines charge fees for everything and only elites check baggage and everyone carries on full pizza and fried chicken, 30 minutes on AA is not enough time. Unfortunately, the experience of flying is become nothing more than a subway in the air.

  18. One might wish to look at the culture of everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Walmart, where, in fact, store managers have great discretion, encouraged by upper management, to make front line decisions. One reason Walmart can do that is because Bentonville has tremendous data that managers (and even regular associates) can tap into to make those decisions. This came very much in handy in their heroic role during Hurricane Katrina.

    As was noted upthread, the right solution here is to let those close to the situation make the final decision, but find ways to get them the information they need to make that judgment. Making sure that pilots consult with IOC and others before they make their final decision seems to me to be key. And since everyone’s rocking iPads these days, why not let pilots directly access some of the data that IOC has so that they can speed up the process?

  19. All I care is that when *I* am late, they delay the plane for me. For anyone else, leaving on time is just fine.

  20. I love reading quotes from [pejorative removed by gary]. He just blabbers on and on and can’t even form a coherent thought. What a despicable human being.

  21. Every time Doug Parker opens his mouth, a little more drool comes out. Pretty soon the floor’s going to be wet. I hope he doesn’t slip and fall.

  22. I know it’s heresy to many, but I don’t want to be held up and perhaps miss a connection so that first class china plates can be in place. Give compensation as appropriate for that type of service issue, but if it’s for something like that, DO meet the schedule.

  23. This manangement knows all about how to run a smaller regional airline but nothing about how to run a legacy carrier. Sadly, it’s all about profit, not product. Those at the top are completely out of touch with the frontline and their jobs. What worked on a small scale does not work on a grand scale. Additionally when you outsource labor and have horrendous IT, it comes back to bite you. This merger was the worst decision ever. And whoever thought AA employees thought it was a “good idea” are mis-informed.

  24. RE: Those at the top are completely out of touch with the frontline and their jobs.

    @M. Smith,

    That, plus the soulless ghouls who run our oligopolst airlines seldom, if ever, fly in the miserable economy cabins they intentionally create just to make things all the more miserable with each passing year in order to create new categories/higher fees for already existing “escape from the misery we deliberately created” bs fees they hilariously recast as “options”, “perks” or “only paying for what you want”…

    …or, of course, that’s if they even bother to fly in any class the stripped down, IFE-less, no legroom, teeny-tiny bathroom equipped, crappy, brand new 737-8 MAX planes they bought like CEO Dougie at AA who has admitted that he hasn’t flown the new planes that will become the backbone of AA’s future mainline fleet that are so awful even he doesn’t care to fly them…

    Yeah, such is the sad state of our competition-free skies these days…

    Only an admirer of (so not) amazing service and “value” offered by one’s cable tv/internet provider, or that (so not) amazing experience everyone has at the DMV could possibly see anything good as a result of having so few /too few airlines left to (faux) “choose” from…

  25. Its amusing to watch the blame game, and finger pointing as to who took what delay. It is a scene of gate agents running around trying to get everyone on board, so the airplane door can be closed 10 minutes ahead of departure time, theres also pilots and flight attendants anxious to close the airplane door so they can start getting paid, managers on their radios, add to that caterers bringing last minute items; it is choreographed chaos.
    When I show up on a jet bridge, I am greeted with a mixture of looks ranging from relief because the delay will not fall on them to anxiety bordering on fear, because departure time will most likely be delayed.
    I am an aircraft maintenance technician. As soon as I am seen, everyone gets on the phone with the ramp tower with: ”maintenace is on board.” Now the blame will be shifted to my department. I however am not required to follow any edicts from executives who never had flight line experience, and are insulated, and detached from day to day flight line operations. So sorry Mr. Parker, I will not check my brain, and discretion at the door. Before anyone monitoring social media inputs at AA headquarters gives my boss a call, I will say this: I am not being insubordinate or disrespectful. I am held accountable to the FAA to follow all FAA approved company procedures, and aircraft maintenance manuals.. The AA General Procedures Manual dictates that I comply, and am In Accordance With all safety, and maintenance manual procedures, ignoring any time constraints.
    This audacity must come as a shock to those who divide employees into “above the wing,” and “below the wing.” Surely these below the wing impudent peasants cannot be allowed to wield such discretion, they must be shown their place in society… sorry, I digress.
    The pilot and flight attendant group were key to geeting this “merger” with America West…I mean, U.S. Air. through. Now they complain they are being told not to think, and do as thy are told, like good team members.
    Well, you asked for it, now you got it.

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