When Will The American Airlines Operation Recover From Meltdown?

American Airlines cancelled 3% of its flights on Sunday, and about 2% already today. Cancellations appear to continue, and I’d guess will last through the end of the month until we hit the airline’s planned 1% pulldown of capacity for the first half of July.

If you’re flying a Boeing 737 especially this hits you hardest, since that’s the fleet type that’s been hardest hit by pilot shortages.

The good news is that in cancelling flights in advance customers can get rebooked, they aren’t dealing with as many changes at the airport. The bad news is that flights are already fairly full, so rebooking options aren’t ideal in most cases.

Since the planned 1% pulldown of scheduled flights runs only into the first half of July, presumably American expects the current situation to resolve itself by then (as they continue to qualify more pilots). However it’s hardly the only operational strain they’re facing.

The issues they – and customers – are facing go beyond pilots. For instance (HT: Jon NYC)

DFW is out of control with no manpower and infrastructure issues. Hundreds of agents and rampers have been hired over the last few months but many have already quit….too much work and abuse from passengers and too hot on the ramp. They can make more at Buc-ee’s and be in the air condition[ing].

The problem now is there isn’t that many business travelers mostly all VFR and family vacations and with that comes far more baggage than before along with more domestic widebodies which eat up too much manpower due to the massive amount of connecting baggage coming off them. Too many passengers arriving in the morning and their connecting flight doesn’t leave for 3 or 4 hours…no room to store all those hundreds of bags. The bagroom belts can’t keep up and the systems are always jammed up or shutting down.

People are checking in for their mainline flights at the Envoy ticket counters at the E and B terminals due to shorter TSA lines, but Envoy isn’t staffed to handle hundreds of bags that need to be taken over to A..C..and D. Many other manning issues due to LUS managers trying to run DFW like it’s a[n] America West spoke station.

Staffing is a major issue for American, as it is for other carriers too. And remember that Delta had mass cancellations over the last several holiday periods as they ramped up schedules without the crew needed to operate that schedule.

Among more junior and lower-paid employees, airline employers have the same challenges Chipotle has in finding workers, as workforce participation rates haven’t gone up materially in a year even as demand for workers has returned. That’s expected by many to work itself out by fall as pandemic unemployment rolls off and schools re-open.

However the pilot shortage is more complicated, but still a mess of each airline’s making. American retired several fleet types (Embraer E-190s, Boeing 757s and 767s, Airbus A330s). Pilots of those aircraft types move over to other aircraft. Senior pilots moving over bump junior pilots, who need to qualify on a new aircraft. Plus pilots who weren’t flying weren’t kept current – despite billions of federal dollars specifically meant to keep everyone ready to fly. The airline didn’t spend money going full force on qualifications in advance of consumer demand, and they got caught flat-footed.

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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  1. As always, Jon NYC is right on: ” Many other manning issues due to LUS managers trying to run DFW like it’s a[n] America West spoke station.”

  2. I can’t take credit for that quote, Alex_77W, but I most certainly agree with you, it’s genius and *really* gets to the heart of what AA folks have been telling me over and over.

    –> “LUS managers trying to run DFW like it’s a[n] America West spoke station.” = NAILED IT.

  3. This does sound like the massively understaffed call center problem all over again… I especially thought AA mgmt’s response was hilarious: “If you don’t work, we’ll fire you!!” Let’s think about that… who does that really hurt?

    I wonder, does AA pay call center agents as much as my local Chipotle ($12/hr in a mid-size Midwestern town)? I suspect we’re going to find out.

  4. Gary,
    I am sure you are aware that the US DOT tracks on-time, cancellation rates, baggage mishandling, consumer complaints and other metrics.
    They just released their new Air Travel Consumer Report for data thru the month of April 2021.
    Even during Delta’s “mass cancellations” as you call them, Delta’s measurable DOT metrics never fell anywhere close to what AA and WN’s operational metrics will fall based just on flight tracking data. DL still ended up as the 2nd best airline in the 1st quarter of 2021 in both on-time and fewest flight cancellations. Those trends were largely true throughout 2020 and also before the covid era.
    Delta’s on-time and cancellation rates were better than its largest peers during the period of its “mass cancellations” (which were during periods when Delta was seat blocking and when there were a whole lot less flights), their on-time and consumer complaint ratios were still better than their peers.

    WN hasn’t even received the negative press than AA is getting in part because AA runs a very complex operation, like DL and UA, but is scheduling far beyond its ability to deliver even industry-average performance.
    WN’s IT related cancellations were the result of their long-term lack of investment in IT but no other airline has miscalculated as badly as AA in their inability to match their resources to deliver a product with the amount of seats they are selling.

  5. Notice that in AA’s excuse for the issue…

    They blame the contractors
    The blame the customers

    Never themselves.

  6. Weren’t the government bailouts supposed to help maintain this “critical infrastructure”? Instead the airlines and airports all cut costs and staff. I don’t oppose bailouts but if you do them, then airlines and airports should have to maintain the capacity the government is paying for

  7. Parker told the employees after the 2019 summer cancellations there will never be another operation meltdown. The Board of Directors need to wake up and fire Parker.

  8. This is what the pandemic loans were supposed to avoid. But Doug Parker raised $10 billion to pay back loans from the government, gutting its reward program in the process. He found work-arounds and reduced headcount by more than 20,000 last year through voluntary leave and extended severance packages.

    As a tax payer I’m infuriated with these airlines and our idiotic politicians.

  9. Yesterday was the worst. Called in the morning and they gave me a 4 hour estimated call-back time — it was more than 10 hours later when they finally called back.

    This morning: called back in 10 minutes. So until the next round of cancellations at least hopefully the call center can keep up.

  10. Once again, UNITED rising

    Not dealing with these problems as Delta and AA flounder

  11. Please show us the data that shows Delta is floundering, Greg.

    You can’t because they aren’t.

    The operational mess has been American and Southwest’s all spring long (summer technically just started).

    Delta and United have been much more restrained in re-adding capacity throughout the pandemic and their operational performance has been better.

    United’s on-time and cancellation rates have been worse than competitors during 2020 and into the first quarter.

    And United has seen significant growth of low cost carriers in a number of its major hubs with the growth of new competitive capacity now being in American hubs.

  12. Since this is an operations (not weather) issue, can they rebook you on another major airline if your flight is cancelled? Thanks

  13. Problems continuing to plague the AA website are further aggravating the effects from flurry of cancellations. Large swaths of the AA website, including Advantage member sections, booking, and options to re-book cancelled flights either are not working at all, or only sporadically. Feels like a meltdown.

  14. As Monday 6/21/21 draws to a close, AA and WN are both showing 31% of flights delayed with WN cancelling 5% and AA cancelling 6% of flights today.
    AA has already cxld 4% of mainline flights tomorrow.
    In contrast, United has cxld 8 flights and has delayed 27% of flights while Delta has cxld 5 flights and delayed 17% of flights.

  15. American has ~20% less capacity now than in 2019. And they can’t run the airline even with that huge amount of slack. Plus billions in subsidies to keep its workforce during the pandemic. Pretty damning on the management.

  16. @airgypsy – that’s REALLY silly, people are dying and it’s being hidden? and only 737 pilots are negatively affected by vaccines?

  17. I wouldn’t say caught flat-footed, that kind of means you didn’t even know it was coming, doesn’t it, like caught off guard? The news keeps framing it like the problem is the number of passengers flying. NO! They scheduled the flights. X amount of planes take X amount of pilots and when they scheduled the flights, they needed to have that amount of pilots ready to fly them. My thought is they have stranded travelers through their own doings. They may have other employee problems (whose incompetence was on full display at JFK on June 4th) but the pilot mess is their fault.

  18. What the Travelling Public needs remember is American Airlines is Not the American Airlines of years gone by, it is nothing more than America West on steroids…..small minded, Regional thinking and not capable of operating like a Global Carrier on the The Big Stage. The Management of the Carrier has been the ‘Weakest Link’ and until the Board of Directors addresses the Lack of Leadership (Most Employees tell Me they despise Parker and His Clown Show) and get capable Leadership, nothing will change. Years ago America West was dubbed America’s WORST, they took their toxic ways to USAirways and now American and many people wonder Do they not realize what a Lousy Operation of an Airline they are? How a Man who has multiple DUI’s is the CEO of the Largest Airline and obviously has His Own Issues has No Business handling the reigns of such a Large Company. Parker and His Cronnies need to be Shown the Door.

  19. Article is very well written, and factually to the point. The software with ROVR, is garbage and was never really thought through. DUI/Doug…. inserted all his LUS/Managers and got rid of anybody that knew anything, in any department. They don’t listen!! The Association, that said Vote-YES on the contract for MTX, FSA, Stores. Sold the membership down the drain all for Union Dues. DP/ shot himself in the foot by offering VEOP to EE’s who could meet the 65 point plan. (10 year Minimum Occ/Seniority. I don’t see AA turning around. To much debt and a CEO and management team that are lost.

  20. My my my….. nobody knows the real truth except people under the wing. The new Workbrain software US-air -AA have implemented has caused the “ Big Mess” . A simple fix can be made but AA CEO’s and Isom and Management refuse to admit failure.

  21. When I was w/ Scareways we “affectionately” referred to him as “Chug-a-lug Dug”

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