Is a Labor Slowdown The Reason United’s Operation Has Been Terrible?

Operations, United

I’ve received several emails and read a handful of articles talking about United’s recent operational problems. If you’ve flown United this month, then you already know how ugly things have become. But what is causing this mess? The rumblings out there suggest that there may be a 15th anniversary party going on to recreate the nightmare that was the summer of 2000. Back then, it was the pilots that brought the airline to its knees. This time, the rumor is that the mechanics are behind it. Though I don’t expect official confirmation, the operational numbers do look mighty suspicious.

I went into the masFlight database to pull out operational details for June (all June numbers are only through June 26) vs May of this year. United and its regionals went from having a middling 77.7 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes of schedule to not even cracking 70 percent in June. Of course, June brings summer travel and worse weather so performance is expected to fall off. But look at what other airlines are doing.

Delta and its regionals had 80.5 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes of schedule in June. JetBlue was over 80 percent as well. Even American and US Airways, in the throes of a merger, were above 74 percent, still several points higher than United. What the heck is going on over there?

There are a lot of places to look, but suggestions from people on the inside pointed me toward the widebody operation. Below you’ll see arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule and percentage of flights completed for United systemwide divided into regional, narrowbody, and widebody aircraft.

United System Operational Problems

This in itself doesn’t look too terribly strange. It just looks like United is struggling across the board. When weather acts up, regional flights are more likely to cancel, so that’s not out of the ordinary. But there is one thing that stood out.

Take a look at widebody on-time performance. It deteriorated faster than the rest. That seems odd, so I decided to take this down to the hub level. That’s when things started to become much more clear. Take a look at all departures out of Newark.

United Newark Operational Problems

Newark weather was indeed worse in June than it was in May, so the general trend here isn’t surprising. And as mentioned, when the weather goes south, regional operations usually get canceled first. Why? Because smaller airplanes will impact fewer people. In general, the idea is to protect widebody flying, keeping it on time to inconvenience the fewest. That is NOT what we see here. We see a widebody operation that is completely falling apart.

Delta canceled exactly 1 widebody flight from JFK the entire month of June. United canceled 25 widebody flights from Newark making up more than 3 percent of the month’s schedule. That’s more than 6,000 people stuck from cancellations alone. Further, there were another 12 flights that masFlight doesn’t have status on. That could add to the total. But that’s not all. Look at the on-time percentage for those widebodies. Holy cow that’s bad. A mere 50 percent of widebodies departing Newark arrived at their destination within 14 minutes of schedule. That is shameful.

Something doesn’t smell right. Is United’s widebody fleet falling apart? Or might the mechanics just be saying it is? Look at flights inbound to Newark and it tells a very different story. Of course, cancellations were still high because if the plane doesn’t get out of Newark, it’s not going to come back either. But on-time percentage was a whopping 20 points higher on the inbound with more than 71 percent of flights arriving within 14 minutes of schedule. That’s quite the red flag there. But what about other hubs?

Dulles was similarly bad. Nearly 5 percent of all widebody departures were canceled in June and of those that did operate, only 59.8 percent arrived on time. In Houston, cancellations were better at under 2 percent, but on-time percentage was still low at 61.25 percent. Chicago was in the same low-60-percent neighborhood, though widebodies actually did have better performance than the rest of the fleet there. In San Francisco, things were much better. A mere 1.3 percent of departures were canceled there and on time performance soared to 70 percent.

How messed up is it when 70 percent of flights running on time seems good?

So while there do appear to be systemwide issues and have been for a long time, there is clearly something else going on here making things worse than they even usually are. I can’t say for sure if this is job action, but it wouldn’t be surprising. Let’s just see if performance bounces back suddenly. That would tell the story more clearly.

If you’re flying United, keep all this mind. Build in some long connections, and yes, bring heaps of patience.

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32 comments on “Is a Labor Slowdown The Reason United’s Operation Has Been Terrible?

  1. So the issue with the rudder on the 777 that had to divert to Goose Bay and left everyone stranded for a day could be this?

    That’s a little screwed up. Some of the reports said that before the plane landed, it felt like the worst turbulence they’d ever felt.

    Is it cool if a job action threatens the lives of passengers? (If that is indeed what’s happening.)

    1. I don’t think he is implying that the mechanics are being negligent or sabotaging anything. That would be truly astounding–and criminal. I think most people credit them with more professionalism than that. The rudder problem was likely unrelated.

      The more likely explanation for the poor performance is simply a slowdown or a work-to-rules.

    2. Neil S – Let me be clear here, because if this is a job action, it’s NOT something that would compromise passenger safety. What a mechanic job action would look like is more delays due to calling out minor things that wouldn’t be considered a safety of flight issue but all of a sudden the mechanics decide need to be fixed. This could cause delays and cancellations so it would be the opposite of what the Goose Bay aircraft experienced. Planes wouldn’t be able to leave unless they were perfect even though that’s far from what’s necessary for safe operation.

  2. Former colleagues & friends in BOS have said it’s mechanics, and it’s making it ugly. Flashback to 2000, the summer of departure banks at midnight!

  3. Flight crew on multiple UA flights in January were telling me that they were having particular problems with 777 operations back then (don’t know if your data back this up for that part of the year, Brett). My 787 flights in March were both delayed due to technicals…..

    1. Bobber – Well there was an elevated cancel rate back in January (just over 3 percent) but arrivals were fairly normal at 74.7%. It doesn’t really stand out at all.

  4. Ok let’s assume it is the mechanics causing it all. Now the question is why? What do they want? And why aren’t they being more public about it? Usually with a labor dispute you want people to know what your upset about so that they in turn apply pressure to management to cave in.

    1. Airline Employees are covered under the Railway Labor Act including the mechanics. The RLA doesn’t permit an “organized” job action until after the National Mediation Board releases both parties from negotiations and then a 30 “cooling off” period.

      Since this process hasn’t occurred there can’t be a job action. Wink Wink

  5. This reminds me why I never want to fly United. My last flight on UA was delayed 20 minutes due to loading of luggage. The flight before that was delayed about 30 minutes because they could not locate the oven racks. I fly a lot with other airlines and I never see this happen.

    With an ontime rating of less than 80%, a low completion number, and lousy customer service; why anyone flies UA is beyond me.

    1. You never see a 20 or 30 min delay on any other airline? Either you are very lucky or you aren’t flying much :)

      1. I fly enough to see 20 or 30 minute delays. But, they are usually caused by mechanicals or ATC delays, not airline incompetence. UA is in a special class of poor operation.

  6. Wouldn’t be the first time a worker group did a work slow down. Sad when that is done since it hurts the passengers who pay their salary and if these people move on to other airlines, it could mean job lay offs for them.

  7. Operational Performance!

    Ask us anything about operational performance, UA of course, and you’ll probably conclude we are all paranoid! But…!

    If you travel on business, I don’t know how you stand it. I, discretionary, and I have to shake my head wondering what is going on.

    I travel on UA almost exclusively, and it is a mess…mechanicas, contracting out, UA vs. the CO people, I don’t know. What is amazing how, every once in awhile, you get a flight that works perfectly and you wonder, why doesn’t this happen everytime? [Obviously, I don’t work for UA or any airline!]

    But, don’t you love how UA tries to make you feel good but you know you’re just going hate everything about your trip, too often!

    1. 24 hours ahead of your Dulles to Las Vegas, connecting in IAH, trip you get a message: “Thunderstorms in the Houston area will impact travel throughout the day. Delays and cancellations are possible.” [Couldn’t you send out that message every day of the year concerning IAH, or from every UA city for most of the summer? But, to UA, “we warned you so don’t get upset.”]

    So next day you go to the airport…things go swell…you go to your gate…great, there, as UA “Flight Status” said, sits the plane that going to IAH…but, but, but, hold on, now we see UA’s most famous departure board words: “Awaiting aircraft,.” now departing, well every 15 minutes that changes. You get a message after message giving you the new, ever-changing departure time, and when that get old, you get the messages about gate change, and on and on.

    Enough, you say, and you go for re-booking. Nice people, but they soon point out, well, your ticket is fare code so and so, and you know the rules (I do?) and you’re booked in xyz, well the rules say (I d? It would be nice if UA let you pull up the fare code and rules, after you got your eticket, but that’s another matter!). And then, the computer isn’t working, meaning CO has everything screwed up (this is Dulles, after all) (or vice versa, if you talk to someone in Houston) and you’ve all heard it before).

    Eventually you get re-booked on an IAD-LAS nonstop, but not before another round of “Awating Aircraft.”) “Operations,” is always good, too, or “Air Traffic Control” has a nice touch, or “Awaiting Crew.” Well, better than the good old days and those famous words: “See agent,” meaning, well, let’s not go there!

    2. UA must have the world’s most “padded” flight times of anyone in the world. [Surely, somebody has data to prove this!] Your leaving a little late, but the pilot says not to worry, we’re going to make up a lot of time. Too much, of course. So, off we go to the penaly box for, “your guess is as good as mine! “Please stay seated with your seatbelts fastened,” “Please don’t try to pull out your carryons,” all of which are immediately, and constantly, ignored!

    Well, it must be the next day because our gate opens and away we go! Surely, it must be the mechanics or, oh yes, this is SFO, so it must be CO!

  8. The thing is that it might not just be the mechanics. Ramp and customer service are just as angry seeing as they outsourced about 1300 jobs and cut their wages.

  9. Mechanics: without a contract, and feeling the penny pinching from the post merger management. Picketed the shareholder meeting at Willis Tower recently. Not happy, but they’re not on strike. FAA has already announced “enhanced/additional oversight” of UA maintenance and procedures due to the FAA’s “concerns with current management” so this will also cause even scheduled MX to take longer than usual.

    Pilots: upset about many issues ranging from poor fleet planning to terrible management of IROPS. In recent round of weather related delays, several crews – including pilots – had to sleep on aircraft overnight. Just shocking.

    Flight Attendants: still without a combined contract, but not from lack of trying from the FA union. Management has actively sought to create hostility and discord between both FA and management, and between the suUA and suCO crews. Issue after issue lately has sent crew moral to all time lows. After fuloughing suUA crew, UA then realised a few weeks later they’d laid off too many people. But insisted when they asked them to come back that they relocate to other side of the country. Many people just told UA to get lost.

    Now, UA is hiring on the suUA side but for the summer, they are desperately short crewed so longhaul widebody 3-cabin aircraft are going out with just 6 crew, or crew are turning up to do a day turn and being drafted to do 3- or 4-day trips which makes it impossible to have any stability, manage child care, manage personal life.

    Overall, UA has to be the example of one of the worst management teams at a big corporation in recent times, with no regard for employee relations, and no accountability for bad management decisions (of which there are many).

      1. jokes aside, this refrain comes up a lot. And even if he wasn’t retired and wanted to “rescue” UA, the UA issues of today are very different than those of the past.

        Bankruptcy has already shed a lot of costs, dead assets have been dropped, heck even the pull out of JFK shows pride is not getting in the way of profit. Routes are fairly right-sized. Labor has been clamoring to be made whole for years of suffering the brunt of cost cutting, but appeasing them would cost a lot of money and put it at a disadvantage to its peers (not that they should or shouldn’t, just a fact). Continental’s stock was also trashed when Bethune took over, and that is not the case today.

        There are many improvements that can and should be made, but make no mistake, today’s UA is not yesterday’s CO.

        1. Noah, I sort of agree with you, but you’re missing the second half of Bethune’s legacy: He got people working on the same team, working together, and all focused on running a good airline.

          CO like UA today was a conglomeration of multiple airlines. I think UA has good financial management and route management, what it needs is a bit of good people management. Perhaps we only need a quarter of a Bethune. Someone to encourage everyone to work on the same team and to get some labor peace..

    1. It’s almost been 5 years, so the sCO and sUA thing must stop. It’s time to be one company. As I wrote earlier, I won’t fly UA because they do such a horrible job at the basics and they are the only airline I know too cheap to provide anything other than a small cup of soda, juice, or water for free.

      I’m pretty sure it took DL less than 5 years to fully integrate their pmNW and pmDL crews.

  10. I was on a UA 777 last week that left SFO almost 1.5 hours late. The captain gave us lots of announcements on the status, which started cheerily informing us on the minor maintenance issue on a generator indicator or some sort. And then he got increasingly angry and apologetic as the repair dragged on, and then apparently ramp or maintenance staff left a cargo door open and other did things resulting in the massive delay. When we landed the captain said he wouldn’t apologize for the delay caused by the maintenance, because safety is important, but that he was very apologetic and very embarrassed for United for the extra delay due to the ground staff. He seemed very genuinely angry about it.

  11. Just had a conversation with a Laguardia based UA FA. She said the mechanics are the cause and they are mad because they wanted a $5 an hour wage increase and United said sure, but then said they wouldnt pay for vacation days. She also said that they were closing Laguardia as a base and transferring the flight attendants to other cities.

    1. Your UA flight attendant base in LGA, really missed this one. UA is pulling out of JFK, and the JFK based flight attendants who currently start/end trips in JFK, LGA, EWR, will after October only start/end in EWR and LGA.

  12. I cring every time our company online res system points me to UA flights. So far I’ve only flew them twice this year and those flights were on regionals.

    Back when I flew them internationally out of LAX back around 1996 to 2006 they were OK. After that they went downhill. Dirty cabins, unpleasant flight crews, lack of service made me switch back to DL.

    Anyone ever go to Interesting comments on that site.

  13. I’ve been facinated with the airline business since 1987 due to regularly flying to and from college.

    So here’s a question I’d love to have answered…….When did United ever not have labor issues? When did they ever have “satisfied” employees and customers?

    Remember the late 80s when it was a supposedly employee owned company and it became appearant that the unions hated each other?

    1. SYVJEFF – It’s a great question, and you’re right. United has a long history of labor issues so nobody should be surprised here.

      1. rethorical….wasn’t the new mgt. coming from CO suppose to work this out as at CO? Jeff had the stamp of approval from Gordon and Larry. Either GB/LK were deceived for over 10-15 years or they deceived.

  14. Just back from a round-trip DCA-ORD-ANK. Schedule worked until we boarded at Chicago on return. The flight was showing an on-time departure. Once we were in our seats, the first officer announced that they were trying to get a captain. He kept us informed, but after six cramped hours from Alaska, the last thing we needed was another hour of sitting before departure. The pilot eventually arrived and we left an hour late. No explanation of why they did not have a pilot since this was a scheduled flight.

    Aside from that, we flew up first-class, which reminded us of how good coach used to be with the same chicken and a glass of wine. The bulkhead seat did not even provide toe room. On the way back, no first class or plus seats were available, so we were basic in the back of the plane. i have always been able to sleep on long flights, but the B-737-800 did not provide a place for my legs and I could not lean back on the seat which reclined only about two inches. ORD-DCA was on an A-320 with the new slim seats, the same restricted reclining, and a lowered headrest. You need to be slim and short to fit in the new improved seats. They are just discouraging flying unless you are on a corporate expense account which puts you in the lie-flat cabin.

  15. You’d think that if the mechanics, or anyone else were undertaking what is effectively illegal industrial action, the company’s lawyers would be all over it. Not to mention the PR people.

    Frankly, it sounds more like it’s just falling apart and the mechanics are a convenient scapegoat.

    Maybe they are a part of it, just using passive aggressive tactics where they do exactly what the book says and not one inch further. The trouble comes when everyone else is also going down that road. At many points when a problem develops often someone can save the day by stepping in and averting a problem. Sometimes you get to the point where everyone in the organization just looks at the rule book, says “not my problem” and flicks it on to someone who looks at the book and says “I’ll just put it into the queue ” and reports back to someone who looks at the book and says “I’ll read out standard response 23.3.2.a without bothering to chase up alternatives. Sounds like the organization is failing. Once employees are past even the point of “it’s just a job” and are past the point where “it’s just a cr@p job” and instead are at the point where the only reward from the job is the entertainment value of messing with the customers, that’s the point where you should be selling your stocks in that company.

    It’s probably even past the point where replacing management would help.

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