American’s President Explains How Maintenance Is Dragging Down Their Operation

In July American Airlines came in 15th in on-time performance for North American (.pdf). They weren’t just behind Delta, Hawaiian and Alaska but also United and Southwest and even Spirit. Despite a company-wide push to depart exactly on-time over everything else, they don’t seem to be arriving on-time.

This has been an ongoing issue. They fared poorly in June including leading the way in cancellations. Indeed United started outperforming American’s operation early in the year.

American Airlines President Robert Isom acknowledged to employees last week at an off the record crew forum that “it’s been a really rough summer.. since about the May timeframe.”

He identified several reasons for American’s subpar operational performance.

  1. Weather. He identifies “weather as a big-time issue in Miami all summer long, in Charlotte all summer long, in Philadelphia.” He doesn’t really argue that weather is worse year-over-year, or worse for American, but he acknowledges his airline needs to do a better job recovering during irregular operations, that “we’ve got to figure out a way to use technology…that we don’t have today, it’s a lot of brute force and manpower that goes to things.”

  2. Southwest’s accident. Isom says American has had an issue “getting our airline up and running in the morning.” He identifies the engine that powered Southwest’s 737s and caused a disaster in April as a problem for American. The CFM56-7s power American’s 737s, and they had to “put over 600 engines through check.” That meant trading off with other maintenance work they could have been doing.

  3. Old planes. He says that “some of our older fleets that are going to be retiring, thank goodness, Super 80s and 76[7]s” have taken a lot of maintenance work but “we suffered through a month for sure where we had about 25% of our aircraft that needed spares almost.”

  4. Degradation in performance of 787s. These were reliable when they came into the fleet after some “teething pains” but “we’ve seen some degradation in performance that have been due to airframes and engines and components” and that’s taken a lot of maintenance work.

The common thread among these issues is maintenance. They’ve had to do more maintenance work, and had to prioritize maintenance work. And they’ve done this without a new contract for mechanics which has meant plenty of unhappy mechanics at American.

Isom “thank[s] our techops team, the mechanics out on the line” and he says that the number of out of service aircraft in the morning is lower, and there’s been “a nice improvement” in “Flagship performance.” However I’ve also seen reports that many delays have been caused by unhappy mechanics.

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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Comments

  1. Is there any good news coming out of American Airlines? Gary do you have a special source for all this American information or are they the worst? Bad density on new equipment, dropping NYC and other major hub routes (ORD- Asia), poor on board service, no reasonable award availability (“Business Class” awards made up of economy long haul and domestic first short haul – West Coast to Europe), poor labor relations resulting in system problems…

  2. Wait, aside from 787 engine issues (which shouldn’t affect AA’s GE engines), I don’t think I’m familiar with performance issues on the 787s. Gary, do you have an understanding of exactly what the airframe/component issues are?

  3. I told someone the company should change its name from “American” Airlines to “We apologize for the delay” Airlines. I tried to fly American quite a few times over the summer, and rare was the time that it was anywhere close to punctual. It is just not a well run airline.

  4. AA needs to accelerate retiring their old frames.
    On the last CR9 I was in the seat cushions were so worn that you’d slide down the seat.

  5. Well, you know, when you’re more focused on cutting corners to better fund already obscenely generous stock buybacks, is it any surprise AA’s employees are again hearing (yet another) “Greatest Hits” Excuse-A-Thon from those in the C-Suite, who just so happen to also be the principal benficiaries of said stock price manipulating/ distorting/artificially inflating stock buybacks (that, btw, were ILLEGAL for much of the 20th Century for good reason)!?!?

    Separately, what’s the dealio on the GE engines powering 787s? Are they, now, too, on the cusp of the type of formerly computer simulated life expectancies for wear and tear that in actual use has proven to be clearly deficient like the Rolls Royce engines for many in service 787s are?

    Or are AA’s executives “embellishing” to cover for their many other “genius” decisions to wreck that once great airline to better line their, and their overlords’ pockets (as AFAIK, we’re NOT hearing widespread reports from execs at other airlines – like United – with GE engines under the wing on their 787s bemoan a crisis in reliability for their “Dreamliners” as Isom seems to be doing…)?!?!

  6. I’m confused because Delta has an even older fleet but doesn’t seem to be as plagued with these issues.

    From what I saw flying through MIA, they aren’t leaving enough rebank time between flights in the event they had a thunderstorm rolled through and caused a ground halt. Was really poor planning IMHO.

  7. As I’ve already said, Spirit’s on-time performance is getting tougher to beat. Plus their fleet is newer than practically anyone else’s.

    But here’s the weirdest thing. DFW has more long, non-crossing runways than anywhere else on earth — it has seven; by comparison EWR barely has two, depending on the crosswinds — and yet AA still manages to be late.

    How can that be?

  8. They do seem to have a variety of issues. My last flight from PHX-BWI had a delay because the first officer called out. It wasn’t a time issue but he was fatigued. So our flight had a plane and everyone but a first officer and we were delayed at least 45 minutes.

    The GA said there really wasn’t a time frame. Eventually the story was that a first officer coming from St. Louis could do our flight. Then while we were waiting (we hadn’t boarded) the computer screen at the gate changed to Chicago and no one at the gate, nor the crew on the plane had any idea what was going on.

    The crew had to get off and a new crew (with a 1st officer got on board). Someone decided we would be using an aircraft arriving from Charlotte at the next gate over. The GA said this stuff seems to happen all the time and no one is told ahead of time what is going on.

    Finally just as pre-boarders were boarding the first officer arrived and she said no one had told her when she was arriving she had to fly our flight (and didn’t seem too happy about the lack of notice).

    We arrived at BWI around 1230AM, about 90 minutes late.

    At least when we had arrived in PHX we were 30 minutes early and had a gate! That was a rare victory.

  9. if there was ever a gate to pull up to they would be early all the time. but there is never a gate. thats why AA is always late.

  10. The 787 having reliability or unexpected airframe maintenance needs is potentially a big, big piece of news and one I’ve not heard before.

  11. From Boeing: “With the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing is using a new approach to design which takes into greater account the cost to maintain airplane structure and systems over their lifetimes. As a result of this approach, the basic 787-8 airplane will have 30 percent lower airframe maintenance costs than any comparable product and will be available for revenue service more often than any other commercial airplane.”

  12. As with many commenters here I am very curious to know if there is any substance to these 787 airframe issues? This is not something I have heard reported anywhere else and should be very big news, especially when they use the GE engines?

    Unless of course AA is just trying to shift blame for their own worsening performance and product… after a period in which I was blown away by the investment in international premium cabins and Flagship lounges, it now seems they are moving rapidly in reverse on both product and performance, especially domestically. Not sure what their sales pitch is, especially as they cut service from New York more and more. It’s as if they are separating their international premium product to a few cities from everything else at the airline and fail to understand they’re all connected…

  13. Here is American Airlines making BILLIONS in profits but wants to outsource more maintenance work!! How would you feel if you were in an AA mechanics uniform?? Wouldn’t pleasant that’s for sure!! Since USAir took over AA’s operations, they should change their name to “Walmart Airlines”!!
    This airline has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse with Doug Parker at its helm!!
    What an embarrassment it has become!!

  14. Problem with maintenance American? Then invest some of that profit. Flying with my family from Aruba to Philly last Saturday – plane eventually cancelled because none of the toilets would flush. C’mon man !! Had to stay over in a scummy hotel. Ugh. And did someone say big investments in airline lounges? The Philly lounge at Terminal A is truly awful.

    Roy

  15. Will take deeper dive as time permits in coming days to research, but a “quick & dirty” look-see for info has yet to turn up any info suggesting a widespread, industry-wide disruption for operations at other airlines who have Boeing 787s powered by the General Electric engine variants used by that aircraft model, or the “sister” versions of that engine that’s used exclusively for all Boeing 747-8I and 747-8F models of the venerable “Queen of the Skies” that even remotely resemble the problems associated with the Rolls Royce powered Trent “TEN” powered 787s; the Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbo Fans (GTF) engines that have resulted in the widespread problems for Airbus A320neo family models, or to a lesser extent, the delivery delays arising from delays in receiving engines for Airbus A220 (nee Bombardier C-Series) series aircraft.

    But again, this is all very preliminary research – where a deeper dive is required to definitely establish what the situation is.

    Stay tuned for an update later this week! 😉

  16. Given how USdbaAA likes to copy Delta, they should start copying Delta’s maintenance and operations. Delta flies many old planes and was also impacted by weather issues, yet they have better performance.

  17. This was validating. I fly AA almost every week, and typically many segments within the week, and this summer the airline has been in complete meltdown. Yes, sometimes it has been weather–but AA’s response and recovery to weather has been slow and poor, which is a change from the past. And there have been several maintenance issues. What isn’t said in Isom’s remarks that has plagued several of my flights this summer is crew and staffing issues: absent crew members, crew members timing out during regularly scheduled operations, etc. I’ve commented to myself that AA must have really cut down their investments in spare aircrafts and standby crews at hubs, because these issues have caused hours-long delays or cancellations I have not previously experienced.

    In my view, a lot of this is the short-term decisions of the past couple of years coming to haunt AA this summer. It’s certainly frustrating as a frequent customer, and I know many frontline AA employees are frustrated by it, too.

    A big complaint of mine: if delays happen, be honest about it. AA seems to have abandoned this principle. Instead, we only get informed of the departure delay on the app, etc., AFTER the regular departure time has changed. And then every 15 minutes. That frustrates everyone. I cannot tell you how many times this summer I have left the Admirals Club to board for a an ‘on-time’ flight to arrive at the gate and see that the aircraft hasn’t even arrived yet. I’m sorry, but if the flight is at 5pm and it’s 4:30pm and you don’t have an aircraft at the gate yet, YOU KNOW it’s not leaving on-time. Why not just push out the delay instead of waiting until 5:01pm to delay it to 5:15pm, and then 5:16pm to delay it until 5:30pm, etc.? It seems the airline is intent on making it harder for everyone–employees and customers. Ugh.

  18. @CP: I live in Miami and fly AA exclusively. I concur with your thoughts. Almost every flight is delayed by hours, gates are not available, crews unavailable or timed out, and passengers are kept completely in the dark. Worst it’s ever been. Regrettably, we have no other option in Miami.

  19. @austin787 they should copy Delta they dont have any unions. If AA didnt have a maintenance union they would save millions of dollars. Wouldn’t have to deal with the unions on jetnet with good ole Robert Whimp commenting absolute trash on every post. Maintenance wouldnt just delay out of spite and the airline would make more money. So yes we should copy Delta.

  20. Gary, you have the luxury of blogging in a an age of much transparency in this industry. This results in you getting to react and criticize the “sausage-making” of running a large airline. Be careful not to overly punish companies who are open and transparent about their struggles as well as their success. You’ll drive the world back to a steady stream of just carefully-worded press releases.

  21. This President is so out of touch with real problems AA is having with the aircraft that is relly not funny. I cant belive how little this guys really know about aircrft maintenence and the problems we have in the day by day operation . It amazes me how little these people know about the operation and how disconnected they are from the problems that we have in the day by day operation

  22. Dear Mr Parker,
    There is a simple solution to the maintenance problem. Pay your maintenance people what they deserve, as you promised several years ago.
    You have a divided maintenance team. There isn’t any fairness within maintenance without a Joint Collective Agreement. How many years now?
    Get your maintenance team a contract and maybe things will change. What do you have to lose? A smooth operation with one cohesive maintenance team.

  23. How about admit the real issues. No parts, tooling or training. There are no more CFM engines in stock. Are the mechanics at fault for that? Who had the great idea of outsourcing stations to do no work or even manned stations have been allowed to defer work so that it gets slammed in the hubs where there are no parts available, with unrealistic pressure to drive airplanes back into the air broken, and you want to point the finger at the mechanics? How is that bean counting going for ya? Trade positions with me for a week you idiot, I DARE YOU.

  24. My only wish as a 30 year veteran with AA is that we had CEO’s with the frame of mind such as Robert Crandalll’s.

  25. Indeed “maintenance “, as in lack of spare parts, an aging Airbus fleet supposedly “overhauled” by a company in El Salvador (lipstick on a pig) for a couple of decades. Being a skinflint comes back to haunt you and make your customers miss the cruise, grandma’s dinner, an important presentation, or a funeral.
    The tail wags the dog at the #NewAA .
    Indeed, bring back Robert Crandall. AA was better.

  26. I’ve been an aircraft technician with American for many years and have made many sacrifices over the years. I have given up my pension, retire medical coverage, vacation time, sick time, holidays, and changes to work rules to keep the airline going. So forgive me If i don’t have a smile on my face. Over the years, American has made billions, but the Mechanics have not shared in this prosperity. Let’s look at almost 3 years ago, when our CEO Mr.Parker, promised us a industry leading contract. 3 years later and we’re still waiting. They failed to deliver, instead trying to send our jobs to South America and push a contract that is not industry leading. The current management team at AA is out of touch and has made some of the poorest decisions I’ve seen in my career. We stock no parts to fix the aircraft and often the parts we get are defective from stock. We lack the equipment and training to accomplish our jobs efficiently on a daily basis. On top of this, working in all types of weather and under the constant scrutiny of the FAA to follow policy and procedures or risk losing your licenses which you can’t work on aircraft if you lose them, and let’s not forget the constant harassment by supervisors to get the job done quicker. At the end of the day, most of us are just beat down from years of abuse by the airline industry and just don’t care anymore if your plane leaves on time. We as Technicians, have to protect ourselves and our licenses first, then we will worry about the “On time departure”. Delta may be flying older Aircraft, but the difference is, Delta takes care of their employees and in return the employees take pride in the company.

  27. Sounds familiar… pay the mechanics what they are due!
    Happy workers = on time performance improvements.

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