With the disappearance of the US Airways code only a couple weeks away, you’d think American would be on lockdown in terms of making any other changes. You’d be wrong. Last Monday, September 21st, American reorganized how it parks airplanes at its Dallas/Ft Worth hub. Now, aircraft are being divided by type to try to improve operational performance. I spoke with Jeff Plant, VP of the DFW Hub to learn more.
Terminal A will now be used to serve 757s, A321s, and 737s. Meanwhile Terminal C will see A319s and MD-80s. Terminal D, the international terminal, is still a mixed bag. That will serve all international flights, of course, but that will also include some domestic flights there depending upon aircraft routing. And the widebodies? Those will go wherever needed since not every gate can handle them in each terminal anyway. (Terminal B will still be the bastion of American Eagle.)
At first blush, this split may seem kind of strange. After all, why wouldn’t the A319s and A321s be in the same place since they’re the same kind of airplane? It’s not the type of airplane that matters but rather the size.
See, the 757s, A321s, and 737s are all larger and take longer to load. They need more rampers and equipment to get them turned around. Meanwhile the MD-80s and A319s are smaller and require fewer rampers and less equipment. When gate changes occurred (and for American in Dallas, that’s pretty much constant), that made it harder to get the right people and machines in the right place at the right time.
By devoting Terminal A to the bigger airplanes, American can make sure there’s enough staffing and equipment at each gate since each flight there will need it. Meanwhile, fewer resources can be located at Terminal C where it will constantly require fewer employees working on each flight.
This also helps with crew connections. Previously, a crew might come in at one end of Terminal A and then have the next flight over at Terminal C, taking longer to get there and possibly delaying the flight if there was any delay on the inbound. According to Jeff, flight attendants are usually not switching between an MD-80 and, say, a 737 during each bid since they require different numbers of flight attendants to operate. So this means flight attendants will have shorter connections, making it easier to make up delays.
Pilots, well, that’s mostly the case, but I believe the same pilot can fly the A319 or the A321. But for the most part, this will still speed up connections.
This will also help with getting the airline off to a good start in the morning. They have a lot of airplanes they park on remote pads overnight, and then they gate them in the morning. Now they can position the 737s/A321s/757s on pads close to Terminal A and then the MD-80s/A319s close to C so they can all get on the gate quickly.
It’s also going to help with bag transfers. Knowing that certain flights will always be in certain terminals, bag routings will be more predictable and easier to staff.
This even has an impact on deicing. Jeff says that they need to do engine inspections on low-hanging engines when deicing is needed. These aircraft will be isolated better to allow personnel to stay in the same terminal.
From a customer perspective, this means more predictability. If you’re starting or ending at DFW, you can at least know which terminal to park in if you know your aircraft type. And if you’re connecting, you’ll know with much greater reliability if you’ll need to switch terminals or not.
Of course, there’s a problem here. The MD-80s are rapidly retiring while more 737s and A321s are coming in all the time. So this can’t be sustainable. Jeff says that at some point, they’ll be forced to expand the Terminal A operation into Terminal C because of that. As of now, they’re using the low C gates as overflow if needed (which has been very rare), but that will just continue to grow. In a couple of years, when the MD-80s are all gone (*cry*) then it’ll be a fairly uniform operation.
At that point, they’ll still likely try to isolate the A319s since they’ll require fewer people to work the departure. I’d assume the small fleet of A320s would group with them as well, if they’re in Dallas. But it won’t be nearly the issue it is now.
How’s it been going? Well, Jeff says it’s too early to tell, but that it feels like a good move in the first week. (Jeff readily admits that “feeling” like a good move isn’t exactly a reliable metric.) Looking at on time performance doesn’t really tell us much. For September 21 through September 28, American’s on-time departures (D0) were up 7.7 points compared to September 1 through September 20. That sounds great, but American Eagle’s D0 was up 6.85 points and those saw no change to gating. In other words, results are inconclusive so far, but certainly there’s nothing bad about it from a reliability perspective.
I like these kinds of moves, even if it only matters for the next couple of years. But every little thing like this can help improve the operational performance, and that’s extremely important.