The Mistake American Airlines Makes Focusing on Exact On-Time Departures

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

American Airlines in contrast doesn’t have a mission statement and when they give employees raises it’s not with the expectation of top performance, as it is at Delta.

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. DP is an utter idiot — how long can he keep up this fiasco, before the investment community see through it?

  2. Not a DP fan either, but let stop using pictures at are 2 and 3 years old. I was DL Diamond and now AA EP due to a relocation and in a new hub city. In the past year, I have had more issue when I had to fly DL then AA.

    Do some of these issue still happen on AA today, yes, but they happen at DL and UA too. In fact this past summer I had my worse flight in memory on DL and avoided them to the point of changing plans in ORD (which I hate) to avoid flying with them I was so displeased. They aren’t the airlines they were under Richard Anderson, who would be a great replacement for DP at AA.

  3. Project management 101. You can only pick two of the three: Quality, Cost, Schedule.

    American has chosen to Cost (not adding additional employees, infrastructure) and Schedule. Quality takes the obvious hit.

  4. From the outside it would appear that American needs to hire teams of Lean Sigma certified experts to evaluate their operations and determine where there is waste so that they can eliminate that waste which the customer isn’t willing to pay for. These could include multiple projects which Gary has mentioned over the last year including creating better processes around maintenance so that fewer planes have maintenance delays, developing maintenance programs around outlets on the aircraft, investing in weather programs similar to Delta to reduce the number of cancelled flights due to weather, analyze the way gates are assigned to improve availability of gates for inbound aircrafts, and the list could go on.

    Unfortunately, it seems like American’s management only fully understands the symptom of the problem which is late departures and hasn’t analyzed the root cause of these delayed departures to improve those items or processes which are causing the delayed departures. Instead, they are making the classic mistake that many executives make which is instead of doing a root cause analysis they have preconceived notions of what is causing the delay (in management’s mind gate employees who are just too carefree) and focusing on that.

    Perhaps instead of spending so much money on trying to cut costs which are visible to the customer they can cut out waste which is increasing their expenses and providing no value to customers. Then they would have money to invest in inflight entertainment like Delta, offer more premium seats per aircraft similar to Delta, and they would be able to attract the revenue premium that they so desire.

  5. Pat — They haven’t even chosen schedule. The schedule that matters to customers is arrival time not departure. Depending on some factors it can be possible to fly faster to meet an arrival time.

  6. @JC: Do you mean some version of “Sick Sigma,” like Jack Welch’s version a/k/a “managing earnings?”

  7. @losingtrader: No, I do not mean something similar to Jack Welch’s version. There are many organizations that properly use Lean Six Sigma to improve operations and reduce costs without using it as a tool to manage earnings. Plus, American clearly has a lot of operations that could be significantly improved. However, overtime the number of Six sigma experts American would need should decrease otherwise they become a cost center trying to justify themselves similar to the American Express’ Rewards Abuse Team (RAT) which then can have perverse consequences.

  8. Happened to us last year in DFW, Group arrived from LAX, there they departed later (30 mins), was supposed to meet up in DFW to continue to FRA, advised gate personnel and “customer service” of delay and please let my fam fly together (10 people). Oh no we cannot hold up that plane to FRA, well family was cut off from boarding although they were there. We sat at gate for 25 minutes before we even taxied. Other people were let on, but not my family, AA rebooked them on a later flight with BA to LHR and the FRA. I flew on to FRA and waited for their arrival (4 hrs), then ultimately we missed the bus taking us to our Hometown. Had to hang out nearly 8 hours after a long and strenuous flight, shame on you AA.

  9. Six Sigma and it’s variants require cross functional teams from within an organisation. Consultants only guide the process. There is also no end point to a TQM or Six Sigma plan as constant improvement is built in to the methodology.

  10. Dougie should be made to connect in DFW every day for a month and see first-hand the absurdity of the system there. With multiple terminals accessed by a slow train they sell 30-40 minute connections. You arrive a few minutes late, run to change terminals, get to the connecting gate 10-minutes before and are denied boarding with the plane there and jet bridge attached and a gate agent who can’t be bothered.

    It’s infuriating and happening to me regularly. Parker has NO CLUE. ABOUT ANYTHING BUT MERGERS.

  11. My experience seems to be like a lot of others. I can almost never complete an American itinerary without significant delays. If it isn’t mechanical it’s crew rest. If it isn’t weather it’s a missing document. I’ve joked to friends that “We apologize for the delay” should simply be added to the standard safety briefing so they don’t have to look up a separate card. If DO has been made such a priority, and they remain so horrible at it, somebody has to go. Their real priority isn’t any type of performance standard. It is retrofitting aircraft to squeeze in the most possible passengers with the least possible comfort.

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