Is the American Airlines operation really “in shambles?”

If you read the Middle Seat column over at the WSJ then you may have noticed a rather bold set of claims being laid out by author Scott McCartney in this week’s column. He starts with a quite direct call to action, "…[A]void American Airlines." A few lines later McCartney notes that "American’s operation is in shambles." Ouch. For a company currently in bankruptcy reorganization that’s not the sort of press you want to be getting from a rather well respected pundit.

McCartney has some stats to back up the claim. The past several days have seen more than one sub-50% on-time performance turned in by the carrier; today doesn’t look quite as bad yet but a 66% on-time rating going in to mid-afternoon isn’t much to be proud of either. By comparison, the other majors in the USA are running 20+ points better right now.


And the company is canceling flights – some immediately and an extra 1-2% in the coming months – to handle the staffing issues they’re dealing with. Or just to cut capacity in general as the biggest carriers seem to be doing anyways, even without staffing issues. Is that going to be enough to solve the problems?

So everyone recognizes there is a problem, but is this the fault of the unions as McCartney suggests? Certainly the pilots are unlikely to be happy about AMR being approved to vacate their contract and impose new work terms and pay rates. But they are also denying that they’ve taken organized action against the company. Then again, it is unlikely they’d admit to a sick-out or work-to-rule action which would put them in a rather difficult position with the NLRB and their pending strike vote.

And, just to keep things interesting, the company has notified 11,000 employees this week that they might be losing their jobs at the end of the year. The company expects that only about 4,400 will actually see that happen but the law requires them to notify anyone who might be fired so more notices are being sent than will likely be put into play. Still, that sort of thing isn’t going to help employee morale much.

Folks who have been around a while will remember similar actions like the so-called "Summer of Hell" at United Airlines a decade ago. O’Hare was a mess. And both the company and the pilots eventually lost in that standoff, but not before pissing off tons of customers along the way. The current situation puts American on a similar trajectory and it is hard to be too optimistic that things will get much better before they get worse. Regardless of which side you blame in this mess, it is clear that there is most definitely a mess happening and the customers are getting screwed.

As for my travel habits, I’m not booking on American but that’s mostly because I generally don’t, not because of this latest "unrest" in the operation. I think it will take a more extended disruption before passenger habits change. But I can see that happening if things don’t get better in a hurry. And from my view here in the cheap seats I’d say it is 50-50 right now on whether things get better or worse in the next couple months.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. If things get ugly then something like a DEQM promotion will likely result. Then again, AA supposedly signed up so many top-tier elites from UA that they had to scale back the offering to make sure they could continue to offer the benefits. And then they offered aggressive discounts on renewing the status level. A lot of mixed signals there.

      As to it being SoH v2 this summer on UA, I think there have been sporadic, unsanctioned actions by pilots but nothing resembling what appears to be hitting AA this week. They’re looking at 4% canceled and 20%+ more than 30 minutes late today as of 4:45pm EDT.

  1. I’ve had one of six flights cancelled in the last few days. Definitely an inconvenience but less disruptive than a snowstorm in Chicago, tornados in Dallas, or hurricane in Miami. For McCartney to say that they are in “shambles” is a bit of an exaggeration.

    That said, it’s obvious from the long standby lists that I’ve seen at the gate that flight cancellations are proving disruptive. It’s not so much the number of flights that have been cancelled, but the routes: DFW/LGA, DFW/SFO, DFW/LAX.

    If it’s the pilots’ plan to “punish” management by garnering bad press and upsetting passengers, it will prove to be a pretty hollow victory.

    1. I don’t find the “well it didn’t happen to me so it must not be real” view of such a large system to be particularly useful. You really do have to look at the broader statistics. If 16% of all flights – your 1/6 – are cancelled then that’s disastrous. But that’s not what’s actually happening. Only 4-5% are being canceled. That’s still many more than usual, but cancellations aren’t the worst of the problem. The delays are. When 50%+ of the flights are not arriving on time there are cascading effects more significant that flight cancellations IMO. When 20% of your flights are running 30+ minutes late that is a big problem.

      I agree that it is a Pyrrhic victory in many ways. But that’s where we’re headed right now. We’re not there yet, but there is a very real risk of slipping off that edge.

  2. Let’s hope this turns out to be as close to the edge as they get. My worry is that it doesn’t take much to go from UA “Summer of Hell” to Eastern Airlines.

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