United’s Operation Improves While American’s Falls Off a Cliff

Just over a month ago, I profiled United’s poor operational performance and how it wasn’t getting better. My, how times have changed. United is once again running a solid operation while American, well, American is in real trouble thanks to what can only be seen as pilot action.

Why don’t we let this chart tell the tale.

United Rising While American Falls

Clearly United has seen serious improvement while American has, um, seen the exact opposite. But why did I break these dates out this way? My original post showed performance through August 12, so that’s why I isolated the beginning of August. After that point, things started to improve. The end of the month saw an airline in far better shape than at the beginning.

I broke it at the end of the month just because it’s a natural break. There was no other reason than that. But why September 12? Ah, that one was easy.

On the evening of September 12, word started to leak out that American management had released the terms it planned on imposing on the pilots now that management had received permission to do just that from the court. The airline decided to impose some terms off the original term sheet, certainly worse than what the pilots had already voted down. Needless to say, the pilots were not happy.

Does that make it the fault of the pilots? Not entirely. I’d say both sides blew this one. The pilots were not smart to reject the last proposed contract. They did it out of anger but it was bound to result in something worse than they could have had if they had just come to an agreement. Now I think they’re starting to realize just what a bad idea that was but they’re just getting angrier.

Now, management could have implemented the last terms sheet as proposed and the pilots probably wouldn’t have had the kind of negative reaction they had. In the end, both the pilots and management should have been able to see where this was going to end up. Anyone want to take guesses what happened next?

Starting the very next day, on time performance tanked. That’s right. The 10 days after the terms came out, only half the airline’s flights went on time. (And by the way, American Eagle was over 87 percent so it wasn’t a weather issue or any sort of anomaly like that.) Oh, and the cancellation rate for American went up a lot as well. We’ve all seen this story play out before.

You’ll hear plenty of rhetoric saying there is no pilot action, but that’s just ridiculous. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily illegal pilot action. There are clear differences between what’s happening here and what we saw with US Airways last year. Most notably, the union leadership is actively discouraging any kind of organized pilot action, at least on the surface. But it is defending pilot decisions to not “ignore serious maintenance issues.” But we all know what’s going on here.

My guess is that this will get sorted out in the courts one way or another, but for now, American is running an awful operation. Talk about a complete flip from where we were a month ago. Now all I can say is that it’s best to avoid flying American in the near term. Please note I say American, and that’s specifically what I mean. If you’re flying American Eagle, then you should be just fine. In fact, American Eagle is running a very good operation lately.

Meanwhile, if you’re flying United, you can take a deep breath. It looks like the operation has finally turned a corner. Let’s hope it stays there and doesn’t go backwards.

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