This past week American Airlines CEO Doug Parker held an employee question and answer forum in Miami. A pilot there expressed his frustration at delays, saying that they’re measured in “dog minutes” because each minute feels like seven. They finally get on their way and arrive at their destination only to find that they have no gate.
Parker offered an explanation for how and why they run into a lack of gates,
The problem gets created by what is the incredible value of gate space at hubs. That’s what’s going on. We are a hub and spoke carrier. Most of the people that fly American aren’t on non-stop flights, they’re on connecting flights.
And our ability to connect those people is key to what we do. And our ability to sell connections is key to our having an airline that works. So we try to sell as much as we can, we don’t have any excess gates at peak times. We’re using all those because that’s how you maximize connections.
Gates at hub airports are a really scarce resource. So we try to use ’em all, and sometimes we try to put too much into the bag. We’ve done that, and we pull back when we see it. The core issue is that.
If you’re pulling up and there’s not a gate available and you think how can that possibly happen, the reason is somehow we got behind. And that’s why D0 becomes so important of course.
As long as it’s all moving on time it all works. We don’t schedule more flights than we have gates, but if we have a couple of airplanes that can’t get off the gate all of a sudden we have a couple of airplanes sitting.
He says the only way to make their gate scheduling work is to depart exactly on time no matter what — though doing so means employees get called to the carpet when the airline fails to cater international first class and it means gate agents not bothering to process upgrades.
That’s why we focus so hard on D0, because if we can actually make that happen everything works. But if we don’t make that happen all of a sudden things start to fall apart because we really are using all the gate space in the hubs.
He goes on to say that 767s are a big part of the problem because of the tendency of American’s 767s to suffer maintenance delays.
Ultimately American holds its employees accountable for exact on time departures but they haven’t gotten the rest of their processes to the point they’re reliable enough to deliver everything that’s needed prior to departure time — but they’re scheduling flights as though they have.
Airlines aren’t the only ones responsible for delays. There’s congested airspace and weather that’s outside of their control. But having the right employees ready to guide planes into their gates and to move jetbridges into place helps too. And staffing gates sufficiently to get everything done that meets the operational needs and customer needs matters.
In the meantime they’re going to max out the gates at their hubs and when anything goes wrong along the way they’re going to have insufficient gates for the number of planes they’re trying to push through the airport.