American’s operational challenges (i.e. pilots deciding to stick it to customers) have been garnering lots of media attention in recent days.

They’ve just sent out an email under the signature of AAdvantage President Suzanne Rubin that I much like.

I’ll skip the boilerplate intro and then reproduce sections along with my commentary below:

Prior to recent issues, American has been running an extremely good operation, with reliability measures at their best levels in many years. The recent delays are due to the increase in maintenance write-ups by our pilots, many right at the time of departure. Our maintenance teams are responding appropriately to such reports, which may cause interruptions in our schedules. I know you will agree that nothing is more important than running a safe and reliable operation. Ensuring the safety of our customers is always our highest priority.

They’ve decided at this point that they can’t outright name the bad behavior of their pilots. I get that. “The recent delays are due to an increase in maintenance writeups” is partly correct, it’s also because of an increase in sick calls, they don’t say the maintenance writeups are bogus but do let you read between the lines in saying those writeups are coming “right at the time of departure”

And yet they’re all taken seriously and American is eating lots of staffing and extra maintenance costs as a result. Because it would be a good PR strategy to call fake requests what they are, that would only reinforce a separate meme about not taking safety seriously which would play into the hands of the pilots — undermining confidence in management, to oust the folks who wanted contract concessions, and potentially make it more likely that American would seek a merger partner that the pilots believe would give them a better contract.

American’s challenge is to make sure folks don’t book away from the airline, something the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney has suggested folks do.

We are taking several immediate steps to improve our service during this period. We are proactively reducing the rest of our September and October schedule by approximately one to two percent. These schedule adjustments will enable us to provide our customers with more reliable service while minimizing impact to travel plans. Additionally, we are increasing staffing of maintenance, reservations and airport personnel to offer you more flexible travel options.

All important moves. All costly moves, flying a lighter schedule means less revenue while still incurring all of the airline’s fixed costs for planes, gates, etc.

Reasonable moves in the short-term but they need to find a way to quell the pilots’ rebellion — whether through the courts as was done a decade ago (but would likely be harder this time without a smoking gun showing that this was endorsed by the union, so whom do you go after?) or through some form of concession to the pilots.

But what I really like is this — a commitment they’re making on the service front to their elite members.

Because you are a valued elite member, should you find that on your day of departure these issues will cause you to arrive more than one hour late at your final destination, all you have to do is ask and we’ll do our best to arrange an alternative. We will seek out the best available reaccommodation, whether that is on American or on another carrier — or if you prefer, we will let you cancel your reservation and receive a refund. Your needs are our primary focus.

Bingo. That doesn’t mean folks won’t be inconvenienced. But with more slack in the schedule, and with a commitment to re-route elites on other airlines, as well as offers of refunds without penalty for even a one hour projected arrival delay that should help avoid the very worst that this situation could create — at least for elites.

United had the summer from hell a decade ago when their pilots revolted (and its worth noting that roughly speaking the current problems American is facing only makes their recent reliability on par with struggling United — that doesn’t have any pilot action). It brought the airline to its knees, brought a new Chief Executive (who was a pushover to the pilots), and ultimately played a role in the airline’s entering chapter 11.

On the other hand, British Airways managed to fly through their cabin crew strike two years ago with relatively little disruption. Airlines can manage labor discord.

American seems to have learned from some recent experiences. I have future American travel booked that I’m not walking away from or trying to cancel. But this won’t be painless, and if I’m flying American I won’t be trying to cut it as close as I sometimes do from scheduled arrival to planned meetings.

Update: Non-elites get the same generous re-accomodation policy with a delay of 2 hours (rather than 1 hour for elites).

Update 2: I notice that so far only 1% of American’s flights today have been cancelled (that number could still go up). They’ve only proactively cancelled 1 flight for tomorrow at this point. So perhaps the steps they’ve taken to reduce their schedule and re-accomodate passengers have added enough slack into the system. Perhaps is the best I can say at this point, and someone hopefully even at that, but it’s an encouraging number as of 4pm Eastern.

  1. NB said,

    I’m no fan of unions or strike tactics, but this is far worse. I fully understand that pilots need a forum for airing their grievances and they need the threat, or the actuality, of collective action to ensure that their interests are taken seriously by management.

    However, this sort of behavior is none of that. First of all, there has been no vote of pilots to take this action. So the huge damage it causes AA, which in turn weakens AA’s position and its pilots’ job security, can be created by relatively small numbers of disaffected pilots. The union needs to get a grip on this and fast. There should be a vote: if the majority want to pursue action, it should be done properly; if it’s only a small number of malcontents, they should resign and find another job. They certainly should not damage their colleagues and inconvenience AA’s passengers who, effectively, pay their wages.

  2. Willy said,

    I got the same email and will be flying this evening on an award ticket (BA Avios) to LGA so I’ll get to see how this applies to award tickets and sticky situations such as using Avios. Flight Aware shows that my flight was over 1 hour late only once over the last 7 days and that was most likely due to weather so I’m hopeful. It’s also a direct turnaround from LGA which is usually good news as long as the weather in NYC is ok.

  3. Southern travel girl said,

    Willy. I had employee on AA booked w BA Avios this morning and his plane was “mechanically delayed” they got him on a direct United flight and he arrived an hour earlier. Impressive! Good luck.

  4. AS said,

    I don’t know what is truly going on with the operational issues AA is facing, but, certainly, the anti-AA pilot union commentary has gone beyond the point of observing / commenting, to the point of clear bias.

    One has to wonder how much of the ‘reading between the lines’ is Gary’s personal bias in favor of AA and possibly anti-unions. Not to mention a positive relationship with many AA managers.

    I’m curious exactly how a pilot assigned to an aircraft is supposed to know if everything is working until he/she actually boards the aircraft and starts working the pre-flight checklists. Of course that’s when issues are going to be found. Hard to tell if the engine is going to start or give you a warning light until you are on board, and you may not find out until you actually try to start it, for example.

    Unless maybe the pilots are supposed to have magical insight into issues on planes they haven’t boarded before they run their checklists?

    As to the sick calls, I didn’t see that in AA’s email. Is that a public fact, a privately leaked “so-called-fact”, or an opinion?

  5. Joelfreak said,

    Point is, the pilots were TOLD their contracts were being changed by the court. AA FORCED that upon them. They are doing nothing other than following the letter of the contract that they now are under, by the court. I can’t see how anyone expects employees to be HAPPY to work under these conditions while the brass isn’t taking it on the chin as well. Is the traveling public inconvinced? Yes. But if you lost your pension or had a pay cut without any input of your own, you would be complaining as well, and this is how they can do it.

  6. palefire said,

    As a data point, I got a schedule change notification this morning due to cancellation of a flight next Thursday. I assume this part of their schedule drawdown, as my original flight is still running next Wednesday and next Friday, as well as the subsequent Thursday. The only rebooking that would fit with my schedule was on a sold-out flight, and they opened up a seat for me. (I’m an EXP.)

  7. HoKo said,

    @Gary So I’m scheduled to fly AA4446 from DCA-JFK tomorrow morning. This is a positioning flight (paid in cash) for an award JFK-LHR(AA)-ATH(BA).

    Am I totally screwed if AA4446 gets cancelled since its two different tickets (even though both flights are operated by AA)?

    AA4446 is scheduled to arrive at 730AM and my flight to LHR leaves at 9:40 so I have a bit of cushion for a delay but not much.

    Any recommendations or advice?

    P.S. I am AA dirt :(

  8. Mike Reed said,

    Just a note – I filled a DOT complaint about the pilot and ground crew antics on my flight last night. I’d like to see these folks hauled before the judge for contempt of court and simply jailed for six months (or the max contempt term)… and fired for cause by American with no pension and no severance.

    The pilots REFUSED a chance to negotiate a better deal, hoping the judge would act in their favor. It didn’t work out, now a small minority of them are being petulant and AA and its customers are paying the price.

    Want a merger with US instead? Why not just quit and apply with US. There’s several Eagle pilots who would KILL to have your slot.

    Want to show the passengers how big your equipment is? We’ve all seen your CRJ-200… now get me where I paid you to take me.

  9. Mike Reed said,

    FYI, my complaint is on my blog – feel free to cross-post if you like. gettingstatus.com

  10. Brian said,

    @Joelfreak – The pilots could have approved a contract, but instead they voted it down. They brought this upon themselves. If they honestly thought they had any chance of a different outcome, they’re either stupid or delusional. I have no sympathy for them, and I hope AA puts the screws to them.

  11. Jim said,

    A little more background on the entire issue (about 7 days old):

    http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2012-09-14/union-leader-says-aa-pilots-angry-over-work-rules

  12. erndog said,

    @AS – have you been living in a cave lately? Think this is all ‘speculation’ and not backed up by hard facts? There are at least a dozen blogger writing (first hand!) about the experiences they have, not to mention the WSJ article referenced by Gary.

    The ‘sick calls’, increased maintenance reports, and slow taxi time are indeed part of a organized effort on the part of some AA pilots to disrupt AA operations – and it’s all been widely reported.

    This has nothing to do with supposed ‘bias’, and everything to do with regular AA flyers (I assume you’re not a regular AA flyer) getting caught in the middle of the cross-fire between some (not all) of the pilots and AA management.

  13. Dax said,

    Just another blatant bias entry from Gary “it’s not a political blog” Leff.

  14. ffi said,

    I am all for Gary’s views.
    AA should have done this a decade ago when all airlines were through the process as they would have got some sense knocked in to the pilots then. PLaying along with them only made them worse and more entitled.
    Want to be an expat pilot for Kingfisher? or Emirates? and try this??

  15. aadvantagegeek said,

    @Joelfreak – AMR moved to freeze their future pension plan contributions, but the pilots didn’t “lose” their pension. link: http://cnnmon.ie/SfvtMA

    According to NPR the the final contract offer that was rejected by the pilots

    “would have provided pay raises and a 13.5 percent stake in the new company in exchange for more flexibility to shift flying to partner airlines.” link: http://n.pr/Sfv1Oj

    American landed in Bankruptcy court after three years of annual losses and with $29.6 billion i debt. link: http://n.pr/Sfv1Oj

    I’m not versed in the intricacies of pilot work rules, but under the circumstances, the final contract offer seemed reasonable to me.

    As a passenger I find it difficult to understand what the pilots hope to gain from this: it doesn’t contribute to the AA’s financial health or future viability, it’s bad for their coworkers, it’s bad for passengers.

    Up till now, I had been somewhat sympathetic to the pilots’ situation, but after all this I’ve come to believe that they’re just being irrational and unreasonable.

  16. Gary said,

    @HoKo you are likely to be fine since Eagle does have fewer problems than mainline

  17. Gary said,

    @AS – see the link in my previous post quoting American pilots’ discussions on how to fake mechanical problems most effectively, how to slow down aircraft, and how to do it without generating legal liability for doing so.

  18. HoKo said,

    @Gary Good to hear, thanks

  19. Gary said,

    I’ll update the post as well, I notice that so far today I’m seeing only 1% of American’s flights cancelled which is good, and only 1 flight proactively cancelled tomorrow so far. Sp American’s internal responses to pre-cancel and re-accomodate COULD and I repeat COULD be creating enough slack in the system to handle pilot malfeasance.

  20. Nick said,

    Those on-time stats are horrible. It takes more than just a small group of pilots to do that. Plenty of E+ seats open on UA these days & TOD’s are going cheaply.

  21. Mike Reed said,

    @Nick: Yep, it takes your union brothers at the gate and on the ground to help delay planes that much.

  22. Joelfreak said,

    You just can’t ask people who lost alot of what they work for to continue giving everything for the company that just fought to take it away. If those of us who travel for business were told tomorrow that we had to travel all by bus (no more planes, and no more first/business class), and we had to eat all of our meals at Burger King, we may consider quitting, even though we all could still get where we are going, and we will still be fed. I can’t believe that AA thought that anyone would just take this sitting down, and there would be no pushback, legal or not.

  23. Gary said,

    @Joelfreak – agree 100% consider quitting, I certainly would consider that and it can be a very difficult decision depending on job prospects. But that’s something totally different than sabotaging the company. But I’m not sure it’s fair fair to say that pilots have lost a lot of what they work for in any case.

  24. Joelfreak said,

    @Gary but the question is, are they SABOTAGING the company, or just refusing to do anything thats not written in their contract to do?! We all have people in life that we have to deal with for some reason or another that we don’t care to give any more than minimal effort to. In this case, the COMPANY seems to have caused the pilots to feel that way. Lets make this clear, its not the pilots, the maintenance workers, or the FA’s who sent this COMPANY into bankruptcy. The people who made THOSE decisions are still getting paid, and now are asking (or had a court demand) their employees to pay for the mistakes of management. Do I think this could be handled better? Yes. But can I really blame the pilots for their actions? No…when you back someone into a corner, you force their hand to what they have left to play. AA management should have seen this coming, and the fact that they DID NOT have a plan for it speaks volumes.

  25. Gary said,

    @Joelfreak I have clearly blamed American management for the overall mess the airline is in on this blog many times. But in purposely writing up non-issues, in purposely creating needless delays, they are intentionally sabotaging the company and many of the pilots have said so. They don’t get a pass for that.

  26. Brian said,

    @Gary – What they ought to get is a pink slip!

  27. ED said,

    Maybe if everyone was forced to pay for their Facebook, YouTube, Google, LinkedIn, et al free pages rather than listing on them as if they were flying (when they are not), everyone would leave Facebook and start buying seats on American — hence, cash flow returns, airlines make more money, capacity is dramatically increased….result: A better world.

    QE3 is just to keep Silicon Valley alive. If Silicon Valley collapsed (like it should) and everyone had to pay for their free-bees, the US economy would flourish.

    Just my thought in this. I’m sick of seeing AMR go bankrupt when Facebook offers nothing (and yet AMR promotes a Facebook page that even they don’t have to pay for)…..as if everyone forgot upper level economics, rather than Econ 101.

  28. LAX said,

    As an American platinum, I appreciate the effort, but the problem with implementing it is that the delays are often not posted until after the scheduled boarding time (or in such small increments that it takes a very long time to reach an hour delay). On four AA transcons btw LAX and JFK over the past 2 weeks, all 4 have been significantly delayed – twice after the flight was fully boarded (and thus passengers were stuck on the plane), and twice after the scheduled boarding time. Last night, my JFK-LAX flight was continuously pushed back in increments of 10-20 minutes. By the time I qualified to be re-booked, it was so late that there were no other flights to LAX for the night. A great idea in theory, but often not useful in practice.

  29. Joelfreak said,

    Right now I have to fly direct from LGA/JFK to MSP next week. I can either fly DL or AA (or SY). Normally, I would fly AA, since they matched my status on UA. However, since there is a meeting I NEED to be at, and I will only have 1.5 hours grace, I am forced to book DL, since if I am not at the meeting, the entire trip would be in vein. I can’t help but think MANY business travelers are also making this decision.

  30. Gary said,

    @Joelfreak – I am sure you are FAR from alone, and the loss of revenue will hurt AA for sure

  31. Recent flight delays, cancellations, & AA responses (Sep-Oct 2012) - Page 51 - FlyerTalk Forums said,

    […] you're right that only elites got the e-mail, but the policy was apparently extended (according to this) even to […]

  32. Jullan said,

    It is very inconvenient to have our flights cancelled. What matters is, the airline company is “doing something” to fix this.
    Though we are not dense not to know the real reason behind, it is acceptable that they sugar coat their reasons. All business entity will do that.
    This is the reason why I prefer a relax itinerary specially, if it involves traveling.

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