At an employee Crew News question and answer session earlier this month, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker was asked why the airline focuses on exact on time departures, rather than arrivals.
Parker explained that Delta is great at departing exactly on time and that’s what makes them arrive on time.
As it relates to on time performance, and on time arrivals, you’re right on time arrivals are what matter. What I will tell you is, what our ops team will tell you is, the way that you ensure on time arrivals is make sure that we take off at D0 so that’s why you focus on D0.
I know it’s a cultural change for a lot of us. This is not chasing the Spirits of the world, this is chasing Delta who is really really good at this, makes sure they have much higher D0 numbers than American Airlines does.
..You have to do it in a way that’s customer friendly. Closing the door 10 minutes early doesn’t help anything. And we need to set the process so that you can depart on time without having huge customer issues and without having people getting left behind.
Unstated is a belief that an airline only has control over their operation until the point a plane pushes back. American turns their $40 billion operation over the government as soon as that happens. To be sure American backed air traffic control reform, but the industry as a whole relies on government to manage most of the actual operation from push back to arrival.
Of course it’s not entirely on the government to get a plane from departure to arrival. When a plane makes it to its destination a gate needs to be available. American would say that in order for that to happen, their other flights need to push back exactly on time too — so D0 is key here as well — but scheduling plays a key role as well. How over-scheduled are gates, especially at a banked hub?
The problem with the way American implements D0 is that it actually makes for a poor customer experience.
- Employees get called in for taking a catering delay when international first class is missing servingware. They called called in when a flight that’s double catered out of Dallas has no food for first class, and they take a catering delay — because the alternative is no food for two flights.
- Gate agents force passengers to get check their bags, even when there’s plenty of overhead bin space, just in case because if passengers wind up boarding and having to gate check closer to departure that could mean a 5 to 7 minute delay. That’s bad for the customer. It heightens their anxiety and wastes their time on arrival. But it protects the employee from the wrath of their supervisor.
- First class seats go out empty when agents are unwilling to take the couple of minutes to come on board and move up an economy passenger after the passenger who was supposed to be seated there either no shows or misconnects.
American Airlines wants its planes to go out, and doesn’t want to take delays — employees are forced to sacrifice maintenance items that aren’t related to safety, sacrifice clearing standby passengers, and sacrifice clearing upgrades.
In fairness to the airline, when their first class product looks like this, they’d ask would you rather have delayed the whole flight to address it?
Depart With Seats Looking Like This? No Problem!
That misses the point though because American’s operation needs to have seats in working condition for the day, every day, and all too commonly they aren’t. American flying with fewer first class seats, meaning fewer upgrades, and a generally poor product environment from those who are buying first class seats isn’t just a last minute tradeoff decision about delaying a flight it’s about all of the processes that lead up to the flight and whether they’re getting those right or wrong.
Doesn’t Work? Just Tape It!
And Parker takes away the wrong lessons from Delta. Delta doesn’t squeeze their whole bodies and concentrate really hard to achieve on time departures as though that will accomplish what they’re after.
- They ensure maintenance keeps aircraft ready, catering is provided, gates are properly staffed and boarding procedures are followed.
- In other words they put in the work to make sure they’re ready to depart on time, they don’t just have managers yell at flight attendants from the jetway when planes aren’t pushing back. This takes coordination (i.e. management).
In the introduction to the employee session Parker shared that he had just attended former Southwest Airlines co-founder and CEO Herb Kelleher’s funeral, and no one had emphasized the point more about the importance of taking care of employees so they’ll take care of customers.
That’s true — but like D0 Parker seems to internalize only part of the lesson. Southwest took care of employees, didn’t have layoffs during tough periods, but Southwest also,
- Promoted an environment of fun community at work
- Ensured employees felt like they were part of a mission larger than themselves – they were the underdog, and their origin story with American Airlines trying to keep them from flying certainly helped here
- Let go of the bottom performers, so everyone else who remained didn’t resent their jobs picking up the slack for non-contributing colleagues