On-Time at What Cost? American Airlines’ Tech Pressure on Employees and Customers

American Airlines frontline employees received new iPhones and iPads and those come with the ConnectMe tool which allows communication between the gate and crew on board an aircraft as they’re getting ready to depart so that flight attendants don’t have to pick up the phone and gate agents don’t come running down the jetbridge.

American uses ConnectMe to prompt flight attendants to hit “D0” goals of exact on time departures. Each flight attendant’s company device has a status bar and countdown clock for the flight. At ten out from scheduled departure, the status bar changes from green to orange, and then at 5 minutes out it goes red. The company expects the door to be closed.

The tool is also being used to communicate problems, like overhead bins filling up or passengers with duplicate seat assignments.

It’s D0 exact on-time departure pressure that causes employees to lie, telling passengers that overhead bins are full.

Many gate agents are quick to make passengers check bags out of fear that the bins might fill up, because they don’t want to be checking bags at the last minute. Last minute bags take time – at the last minute – and risks missing exact on time departures by a couple of minutes. Agents are held responsible for delays that aren’t even their fault and it usually seems like missing exact on time departure by two minutes is as bad (worse even?) than arriving 45 minutes late.

ConnectMe rolls out to all American Eagle regional stations by Tuesday.

It’s part of how American is using automation to reduce the burden on gate agents trying to get a flight out on time, such as automatically processing the standby list. At mainline this has enabled them to reduce staffing at gates, so that only one agent works domestic flights that are less than 80% full.

American’s automated process to clear upgrades and standbys (“AgentAssist”) replaced gate agents, generally doing its thing 40 minutes out (standbys processed 60 minutes out only on flights that are less than 80% full).

Agents are expressly now forbidden from clearing standbys themselves more than 40 minutes prior to departure, and employees are complaining that this means gate agents aren’t able to give fellow employee nonrev travelers better seats early. On Thursday official guidance went out that “clearing the Priority List is being set as a universal policy and procedure to create a consistent experience for our revenue and non-revenue customers.”

There are still gate agent tasks, but fewer of them, so that automation replaces agents. Some agents are afraid to do those tasks, including adding both employee and customer standbys to the list after AgentAssist runs and departure time approaches. So be aware that standbys can still be added up to 15 minutes prior to departure. If a gate agent tells you otherwise, they’re wrong.

While automation may be cutting down on gate agents, flight attendants are legally required (generally at a ratio of 1 per 50 passengers an aircraft is configured for), so ConnectMe won’t replace cabin crew any time soon.

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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Comments

  1. Gate agents are beginning to board earlier and earlier. For a 7.35 am flight yesterday (SJU-MIA) the agents appeared to start boarding at 6.40.

  2. This is not “stres”. Jesus it is called doing your job and there should be some urgency. To call it “stress” is a disservice to physicians, police, firefighters, military, etc that actually have stressful jobs!

  3. Experienced first hand and American agent at DFW refuse to add myself to the standby list at 30 minutes to departure, even being Platinum Pro. Flight closed the doors 10 minutes before departure and left me behind at the gate desk with empty seats. Every flight after has now been on SWA.

  4. Who cares when it takes off? Landing on time is the only key point.
    Considering flight times are padded 20-30 min it’s a low bar that even a cave man can make.
    I miss connect about a third of all European destination itineraries. Between TSA recheck, sloppy ramp work, sloppy gate boarding, air traffic control and mile plus gate walks I’ve overnighted in London, Madrid and Dallas THIS year..
    I only care if I am delivered on time! The rest is theater of trying to look good.

  5. This isn’t the only group being micromanaged.
    Apparently all customer service is just being ignored.
    Hey AA
    ACCOUNTABILITY

  6. I now see a way to protest having to check your carry-on. Stall, slow down and block the line as if you are confused. This is no different than how some passengers actually are. If enough people did it, Carl would be held responsible for not getting the flight out on time. It would deincentivize the actions of the airline. Of course, this might not be popular with the crowd on a tight connection but so be it.

  7. I think it’s a good plan. I like arriving on time or early consistently. I’ve flown AA a lot domestically in the past year and their on time performance has been excellent.

  8. @AC – the word “stress” is a relative term that serves to illustrate how limiting the use of such a platform can be. From the description provided, it’s easy to divine the technology isn’t being employed to derive a better customer service outcome, but merely to meet a D+0 departure objective absent any consideration of mitigating factors that can interrupt the departure process.

  9. Dito Paul, who cares about on time departures, arrival on time is the more important. Flight attendants need to do a better job of arranging overhead storage, always can find more space if they want to.

  10. Have to gate check bag. Leave on time. Land 20 minutes early. Lack gate space at fortress hub. Deplane 10 minutes late. Wait 45 minutes for gate checked bag. Fly another anline for the past 6 years

  11. This obsession with D+0 departures is absolute nonsense when it involves a flight to an outstation or one that has no connecting passengers at the destination. On such flights I would applaud the airline for holding for a few minutes for late connecting passengers and to ensure their luggage is onboard. Who cares if you arrive 10 minutes late in OMA, ELP, SMF or other similar outstations.
    And @AC- firemen, police, etc. make a whole lot more money than an AA gate agent. No low paid employee is going to tolerate being berated for something they have little lor no control over.

  12. Am fine with it. Have flown AA and DL a ton around the country and overseas (mostly AA) in the past 18 months. The majority of my AA flights have been on time, even departed a few minutes early and arrived on time or early, even in bad weather. Can’t say the same for all my Delta flights. Most went out on time. Some didn’t.

    I don’t come for the peanuts or the pretzels. I want reliability.

  13. On-time is critical for flights to hubs, especially CLT where AA insists on creating 30 minute connections. As I previously stated, why would anyone going on a flight with no connections at the destination care if the flight is 10-15 minutes late? If you were on a tight connection, wouldn’t you like the flight to be held for 10-15 minutes for you and your seat assignment kept. Maybe AA can meet flights with tight connections and provide a quick ride to the connecting flight. UA has committed to at least trying to help those with tight connections to hold flights whenever possible based on connections at the destination, where the aircraft & crew are going after the flight and other factors which may disrupt flights the rest of the day. . AA really needs a change in leadership where the customer comes first not some rigid formula that only meets some metric that isn’t customer focused and which causes gate agents extreme stress.

  14. good thing, shoeguy, that the US DOT measures on-time and cancellations and a whole lot of other operational statistics.
    They, not me, say that Delta has gotten a higher percentage of flights to the gate within 15 minutes than any other US airline. Don’t take my word, though. Look it up.
    American is #3 behind Alaska and AA, UA and WN are all within a couple points of each other while there is a solid 4 points between DL and AA.

    and while AA manages to get its planes to the gate much better than they did before, their baggage handling, involuntary oversale ratio, and consumer complaint ratio are all in the bottom tier of the industry – below many low cost and ultra low cost carriers.

    Customer service is not just about slamming the door in people’s faces as the jetway is pulled.

  15. Seems like the opposite of efficiency to insist on clearing standbys so close-in.

    Once check-in is closed, the number of seats not checked in is a known quantity… clear them and move on.

    Also couple of non-rev points:
    -AA policy used to be that non-revs added within D-40 would only be seated after all non-revs who are listed at D-40, regardless of priority. Did this change??

    -AA encourages employees to chase statis but getting cleared within 40 seriously jeopardizes the only meaningful status benefit – early boarding! (Non-revs don’t pay for bags)

    Ps to the commenter on SJU that is actually defined as an international flight for AA and can board at D55 just like all the others. Canada flights are Domestic but PR is international = AA Logic.

  16. AA is an absolutely MISERABLE company to work for!! Only people making money there are pilots and the over excessive amounts of higher management that it employs! These so called upper management make upwards of 40% of annual salary off of bonus based on these stats among others! The average airport work gets maybe $600 profit sharing if lucky!!

    This company can’t even get its own work force to be happy so how do you expect the passengers to be well taken care of?

  17. There is one solution, and Southwest is minting money with it: CHECKED BAGS FLY FREE, which solves all these issues.

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