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

American, Labor Relations, Operations, United

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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22 comments on “United’s Operation Improves While American’s Falls Off a Cliff

  1. Memo to AA management: you get the labor you deserve. You squandered the opportunity to strengthen the company in 2003 when the employees helped you keep the airline out of bankruptcy. Instead, you rewarded yourselves with their sacrifices. If you behave stupidly and persistently so, how can you expect labor to respond constructively?

    Beware the path Eastern went down. The saying about “cutting one’s nose off” comes to mind…

  2. As you know, Cranky, both my recent United experiences would not have contributed to the upturn in performance. Two transatlantic flights in 36hrs, both delayed through mechanicals, was a poor show. Can’t blame one legacy vs another, as the first flight was on a (very) ageing UA 767 and the return on a CO 757-200. These are the first mechanicals I’ve experience on UA in nearly 500k’s worth of flying.

  3. It was good that you mentioned UA doing better and not just focus on AA doing badly.

    Amazing how at AA so many serious maintenance issue popped up after Sept 12. What is considered a ‘serious’ issue in their eyes, and are they really serious?

  4. Funny to think of all the UA FFers that jumped ship to AA when they status matched and UA couldn’t operate its way out of a paper bag…

  5. Reliable Sources say anything leaking or bulbs burned out on
    flight deck or not enough tread on tires
    on a AA plane will not be flown until fixed….
    I am betting next time you check on time performance
    will be less than 40 %… Where’s my Plan B

  6. before the pilot-bashing kicks in again:

    ask yourself: how does your daily job performance depend on your attitude towards your employer?

    you can go out of your way to make things happen if you feel supported, encouraged and a valued employee. you’ll track people down if things are not getting done and will suggest alternative solutions if something doesn’t work.

    decent pay may partially offset bad management-labor relationship/ a bad working environment. take that with no way to switch jobs (seniority)
    and you’ll work near the contractual minimum if you feel your employer is not trying to work on a solution with you, after years of discussion groups ;)

    the AA pilots are true professionals.
    the union is professional. they know the court precedents and are not encouraging sick-calls.

    But management forced pilots in a corner where they no longer feel the need to go out of their way. they do their job.

    so you can do your job with your keyboard partially broken. you will get that important task done and ask IT for a new one later down the line.
    your boss comes over and tells you the coffee machine was taken away and its now a vending machine.
    next time that important task comes up, you’ll ask for a proper keyboard first.

    1. Wise words wich will unfortunately always fall on deaf ears for anyone in a position to actually implement change. It’s a sad trend nt just at AA, but the entire industry.

  7. sorry for the long post but dont think many will check out a link.
    interesting take on the rest of the operation:

    From an AA FO


    I’m just here to do a job, my job.

    5:00 AM show for a 6 o’clock go in XXX this morning. Took the 4:40 shuttle from the short layover, and after 4 stops, got through security at 5:10. Straight to the jet which sat all night.

    Parking brake pressure sat around 2,000 PSI, in the orange band.
    3 of the 4 main tires with low pressure.
    A chip in a fan blade in the left engine.
    Cracked taxi light.
    2 of the 3 exterior emergency exit placards under the FO window deteriorated.
    Exterior Evacuation Slide placard on the forward galley door deteriorated.

    Did I mention this thing sat all night at a maintenance base?

    Anyway, a MX team showed up to work. Then they quit. Apparently AA schedules a maintenance shift change right at the morning push with all the so-called critical flights. New team shows up. Work is being done with all the passengers politely watching from their assigned seats. Departure time keeps getting pushed back. At 7:00, the #1 tells us the flight is canceled and they’re deadheading on the 7:10 flight to XXX. So are we. Maintenance tells me the jet is OTS because 2 brake metering valves are leaking.

    We gather our stuff, (well most of it, my CA left his earpiece in the jet), and head to the new gate. A manager, K, is working the 7:10 flight. He’s stressing. Tells us he’s putting us on the next flight, not this one, and to leave him alone. No problem, just means we will be late for our return flight, but we aren’t in charge of manning, deadheading, scheduling or XXX, so we sit in those cool round red chairs out of the way and watch the show. Long lines, cell phones out everywhere, agents gate checking bags, and the manager running around trying to keep up.

    7:10 comes and goes. The gate door is shut. A gate agent makes the following page in the terminal, “K, return to gate X. The captain (working the flight) wants to talk to you.” K refused to talk to him. The door opens again, and agents are sending down more passengers. Important-looking people are talking to their respective travel departments and jockeying for position at the gate to get the last few seats. Apparently, they tried to close the flight out with 20 empty seats and a long line at the gate from our canceled flight. The captain called bull.

    Our names are called. We weave through the important people to the gate. The agent looks at us, “What’s up?” “We don’t know, you called our names.” “Oh, you’re deadheading?” Again, we don’t know. “Go sit down.” OK.

    5 minutes later, our names are called again. “You’re on. We’re checking your bags.” “How will we get our bags in XXX?” They are “Escort Tagged”. They will be brought up the jet bridge in XXX with strollers and wheel chairs. “OK, cool”. All middle seats in coach, my favorite! We push at 7:33, 23 minutes late. Critical flight canceled and another D+23… We arrive in XXX A+8…

    On a side note, our crew breakfasts were not provided on the deadhead, so we hadn’t eaten since the night prior.

    Our departure back to XXX was scheduled at 12:40, so we figured AA had the flight boarded and ready. We are standing on the jetbridge waiting for our bags. Passengers are deplaning. They’re done. The crew leaves and another shows up. Still no bags. Oh , and no keys or vests to go find our bags. We wait. After all, baggage handlers know how to do their jobs, and it’s not my job to prod everybody along. We’re all highly trained professionals. They board the next flight so we clear the jetbridge into the gate area. They finish and the agent asks us what’s going on. We tell her the story. She goes to check. At that time, almost an hour after we arrived, crew tracking calls. “Why aren’t you at the next flight?” Captain tells her our story. Here we are. No bags, no manuals, no keys, no nothing. Oh and by the way, we haven’t eaten since last night. Tracking says nourishment’s hotels and limos’ arena.

    Tracking calls back. She called the ramp manager. The ramp manager gave her the crew chief’s cell phone number. She asked the chief about our bags with the “Escort Tags” on them. He told her no way was he going to carry them up the jetbridge stairs so he left them on the ramp. After a while, he took them to baggage claim. She said he was ****ed. We told her that’s fine, just have them delivered to the departure gate, which did board on time, ready to go at 12:40. It’s now 13:40-ish.

    Nobody can deliver our “escort bags” to the new gate, so we go outside security and grab ’em. Come back through security in D, catch the train over to C and to the new gate. No agent, door shut. (Remember when a key would allow us to get to the jet? Not my problem anymore.) Screw it. I walk to McDonald’s. Did I mention we hadn’t eaten since the night before and it’s 14:00 now?. I get back to the gate. The captain’s studying the 18-foot-long flight plan. The agent lets me down the jetbridge.

    Upon entering the jet, the flight attendant says, “Can you make a PA and tell these passengers why you’re late?” She’s standing next to a first class passenger in the galley. I say, “Well hi there, I’m Bill. How are you?” Eyeballing my little McDonald’s bag, she says, “I’m not getting paid, we boarded over an hour ago, and I can’t get off to get food like you have.” “Hey I’m sorry, we haven’t eaten since yesterday. We deadheaded in and AA lost our bags.” I look at the passenger and say, “Hey there, how are you? Can you believe AA would lose our luggage?” He understood and was in a good mood. No problem with him. Just the FA.

    I walk around the jet. The captain comes down and we start making our nests. “Cabin’s ready.” SLAM. Ahhhh, peace behind the cockpit door. I’ve come to really like that door over the years. We’re loading the box, flipping switches, all that cool stuff we do before we get paid. DING, DING. Captain answers, Yes? “Why aren’t we moving yet?” Well, we just got here. Now we’re running all those checklists we do before we go fly. A few minutes later, DING, DING. Yess? “Can you make a PA and tell these passengers why we’re still sitting here?” I’m not making this up.

    Finally time to push. 14:50 local. D+130 minutes. BANG. The tow bar breaks. DING, DING. Yesss? “What was that??” Don’t worry about it. We have it under control. Please let us do our jobs. MX inspects the jet. No problem. Meanwhile, the agent lets PAX off – without their bags… We can’t leave without them. We finally push at 15:52 local. D+192.

    After the flight, one of the passenger got in the captain’s face as he was deplaning, pointed his finger in his face and said, “You’re a THUG! A union THUG! The captain replied, “Sir, you don’t know me, but I assure you I’m nothing like that.” Yes you ARE! A union THUG! and left.

    Maintenance came on and asked who the thug is. Captain fessed up. He laughed. Then he talked about a flight that canceled this morning because the crew “wrote up 19 items 20 minutes before departure”. He got a bull[Content Deleted] look from the captain. Then he said, “Of course, the jet did sit here all night with our night shift.”

    We get to the hotel and on the elevator. A guy says, “Hey, you’re not the pilots that just came in from XXX…” We braced and admitted it. No punches, but he said, “We heard you went to lunch before coming to the plane.” He knows that not to be true now.

    The hardest part about this day was refraining from repeatedly stepping into the other departments and telling fellow employees what needs to be done. It is engrained in usto anticipate and fix problems we see coming. Once I overcame the urge to tell others how to do their jobs, it actually became quite entertaining to watch the operation.

    My advice to you is to not let the frustration of watching others without guidance raise your blood pressure, but to embrace the comedy of errors that ensues.

    Do your job. No one else’s. Do not tell others what needs to be done. Do not continually follow up. You called MX once. They are aware. No need to stress them out. The agent told you to sit down. She knows you’re there. Don’t stress her out. Roll with the flow. They’re all highly-trained professionals.

    It’s a hard habit to break.

    1. Mke – that story was fascinating. I have days that are easily just as bad, only different. Amazing how events are like dominos and things just cascade. BTW, I’d love to hear more “life of an airline employee” stories.

        1. Exactly, that’s how you know it isn’t typical and it’s all being caused by the pilots. Also, how can pilots call themselves “professionals” if these types of maintenance problems are common but pilots are just now taking a hard line? So they’ve been putting their pax at risk all these years? Finally, clearly the union maintenance workers are awful and should all be fired.

    2. “Do your job. No one else?s. Do not tell others what needs to be done. Do not continually follow up.”

      It seems to me the commenter could have avoided most of those problems (and gotten something to eat much earlier) if he hadn’t followed those rules, stepped up, shown some leadership and got everyone to work together. Passengers would have been happy too.

  8. I think AA should just speed up the merger with US and stop creating a bigger mess. That’s what the employees, unions, and US management want. It’s what seems that the creditors want too. And if it helps keep more jobs (like US is claiming), they might as well help the progress and not wait until the final moment (especially around the holiday times) to do it.

  9. I think I was on one of the few on time flights for American this weekend. And while I am happy about that, there were plenty of angry people at the airport on Saturday. I didn’t understand why until the lady next to me who had been on a cancelled flight told me (Sometimes it is just nicer to be oblivious) Hopefully they get it fixed soon, because it is just easier for me to fly American going out of Dallas, because I hate layovers

  10. I’ve flown American several times since the drama began, and, as luck would have it, my flights have been on-time, with the exception of one 30-minute delay due to late-arriving equipment.

    I do have a flight this week that was affected by the cancellations. I am one of the lucky customers who AA offered to rebook on another carrier if travel plans were affected by more than an hour. Accomplishing the rebooking was harder than I hoped — the first phone agent was unhelpful and wasn’t aware of AA’s authorization to book on other carriers — but the second agent was great and got it handled quickly.

    I was pleased that, despite a stressful situation for all, all of the crew members I encountered were professional to one another and to customers.

  11. The pilots made their bed and now they must sleep in it…It was short sighted to turn your nose up at management when the court has so far been largely in favor towards mgmt. You can bet AA’s legal counsel is looking for a chink in the union rhetoric ‘excuse’ and I wouldnt be surprised if a lawsuit is forthcoming.

    1. It would seem that pilots AND management have made their bed, and must now sleep in it.

      Courts apply the law – not necessarily what is right or wrong – we see that often enough in compensation cases.

      As any fool knows, once something gets to court, the only winners are the lawyers.

      Pilots AND management should have managed this much better for their stockholders and members.

  12. As someone who just completed a 2 week, 8 segment trip on AAL, the pilots deserve a sound spanking (and not the sexy kind).

    Flight out of DFW delayed for over two hours because (according to FA) the pilots wrote up a loose buckle on the flight bag retaining strap in the cockpit of a Super 80. Are you f***ing serious!?!?

    I also experienced several absolutely appalling taxis. I’m not saying that every pilot needs to taxi like they work for Southwest, but we had a 14 minute taxi from the runway at Tucson, including what I’m sure the pilots would refer to as a “safety stop” at every single taxiway intersection.

    As for the miserable excuse for the pilot whose story is posted above, walking onto the plane with a McDonalds bag over 3 hours late looks horrible. No matter how hungry you were, at least hide it in your flight bag. And as for checking your bags, WTF would you do that? Hand it to an FA and ask them to stick it in a closet. Checking the bag and then taking a “not my problem” atitude is clearly a maneuver designed explicitly to cause delays.

    Similarly, several flight crews showed up appallingly late. I’m sure they have some carefully crafted excuse, but when even rank and file FAs are telling pax that delays are due to pilot shenanigans, you’ve lost the public relations war.

  13. couple of comments:

    “loose buckle according to FA”? I call BS.
    highly doubt thats what the CA told the FA. i also highly doubt the FA looked at the maintenance records.

    14min taxi is from runway -> terminal if i read your post correctly (or terminal -> runway?)
    does sound long, the average (excl. AA) this month was 7.9 minutes.
    taxi out from terminal to runway was ~12 minutes so that would be reasonable.

    yeah, flight crew love checking their bags. they do it because they really like looking for their stuff.
    this is not your man purse that needs to be stowed in a closet but two crew bags + jepps. its not like there is some secret hiding space the passangers dont know about.

    FAs are not getting paid for sitting around during delays. any solidarity will quickly erode ;)

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