Many Airlines Have an On Time Problem in Los Angeles, but It’s American’s That Concerns Me Most

American, LAX - Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a market in high demand these days. Delta and American have been slugging it out while international carriers pour in as well. Pretty much everyone is growing, and that means the airport is coming under pressure to maintain its usually strong on-time performance. It’s been particularly bad this month (not even Alaska could crack an 80 percent on-time arrival rate). Though many airlines are suffering, it’s American’s performance that I find most worrying.

On June 2, American launched its latest expansion in Los Angeles with more than 20 new flights to a bunch of new destinations. American didn’t have much room to grow at LAX, but it had a plan to squeeze more flights in. That plan does not appear to be working. Since the launch, mainline on-time performance has tanked.

American had already been pushing its gates really hard in LA. With all of Terminal 4 under its control along with a remote terminal for Eagle flights, 4 new gates in Terminal 6 (which used to handle US Airways), and the right to use some gates in the Bradley Terminal, American was able to run its operation before June 2, but space was still pretty tight. Here’s a photo I took last time I was in Terminal 4.


With these new flights coming on June 2, American knew it had to make some more changes. First, it decided to build 2 new gates in Terminal 4 by moving around parking spots to optimize for the smaller aircraft it now primarily uses. That would make the terminal even more crowded on the inside (if that’s possible), but it would increase capacity nonetheless.

To help lighten the load inside the terminal, American moved check-in for its Eagle regional flights over to Terminal 6. The idea was to balance passengers better, and since those Eagle passengers had to take a shuttle bus from somewhere, it might as well be from the less-crowded (and closer) Terminal 6.

Did it work? Eh, no. See for yourself. After hearing rumblings from people in the know, I turned to masFlight to see the numbers on how the operation was doing. Here’s how the standard Department of Transportation (DOT) metric of arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule looks for all LAX operations (arrivals and departures) compared to American’s systemwide numbers.

LAX On Time Problems American Airlines

That’s quite the graph there. In fact, there were three things that stood out when I first saw this data.

  1. Damn, Eagle is kickin’ butt in LA. Up until the June 2 schedule, that was more than 90 percent operated by Compass Embraer 175s. Great job, guys. (After June 2, Compass dropped to 75 percent with SkyWest stepping up more.)
  2. American has not had a good June. Everything is down, and you know why? Summer thunderstorms suck. Other airlines have been off their highs as well so there is a systemwide issue, but…
  3. Even though June was bad across the board, it was WAY worse in LA. Summer weather does not explain that. Let’s dig in further…

Yes, in June, the usual June gloom in LA meant lower arrival rates thanks to fog on some days. But if that were really an excuse, then regional flights would have looked just as bad or worse than mainline flights. After all, when the weather gets ugly, regional flights are usually sacrificed for the health of the mainline operation. We did not see that in LA where regional flights blew away mainline. In fact, when it comes to on-time departures for flights to and from LAX, the regionals clocked in with 71.5 percent leaving exactly on time or early. That’s a great number. Mainline? That was 46.7 percent.

I reached out to American to get a comment. This is the bulk of what a spokesperson sent me.

In summer all airlines and charters increase flying and that increases traffic in an airport that is under planned construction to the facilities and the airfield. We have been affected by a primary taxiway and a gate that are under construction. We are expecting completion very soon. Additionally in the month of June, we have taken some catering delays but we have addressed this in a number of ways including introducing an exciting new provider on some international flights this July.

And that brings us back to the airport-wide issue here. First off, I’ve ignored Southwest’s miserable performance on purpose. Southwest is in the throes of renovating Terminal 1 and it is operating with fewer gates than it needs. Has it overscheduled the place? Oh yeah, and its performance is even worse than American’s. But this is something that will fix itself when those gates come back online.

I went back into masFlight to find out how Delta and United were doing. Those were especially interesting to me since they’re on the same side of the airport as American and would presumably also see some impact from that mentioned-taxiway construction. Here is a look at the mainline operations for each carrier.

LAX On Time Comparison

Sure enough, everyone’s performance is down but American’s plummeted. Over the last few months, American appears to have been about 5 points shy of Delta and United at LAX. Since June 2, it has swelled to a more than 10 point deficit.

And about that taxiway…. According to LAX, Taxiway B is the big construction project currently underway. (That began on May 16 and goes into early August.) Taxiway B does run the length of the field parallel to the south runways, so that could have an impact, but there’s a problem.

!LAX 05/082 (KLAX A1431/16) LAX TWY B BTN TWY U AND TWY AA CLSD 1605161400-1608070659

That is a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM). And all that gobbledygook says that Taxiway B is only closed between Taxiway U and Taxiway AA. If you look at a map of LAX, that part is at the far west end of the airport which connects the end of the runway to a maintenance area. It’s hard to see how that would have a dramatic impact on American’s operation.

Further, that work started on May 16, and if we look between May 16 and June 1, American ran more than 80 percent of flights on time. But the second the new schedule went into effect, the numbers dropped 15 points overnight. That doesn’t sound like a taxiway problem.

Could the gate construction be a culprit? Well that’s just a gate at the Bradley Terminal so it’s one that American can only use part-time anyway. That should help, but I can’t imagine it’ll solve everything.

To me, it looks like American is trying to run too many flights from the gates it has, and on-time performance has suffered dramatically. It doesn’t seem like American wants to acknowledge that’s the issue, so I don’t expect we’ll see performance get better any time soon. But I’ll be watching.

[Original sardine photo via Shutterstock]

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26 comments on “Many Airlines Have an On Time Problem in Los Angeles, but It’s American’s That Concerns Me Most

  1. Has United experienced any further delays given it’s main terminal is now under full construction? It seems like they would have experienced some of the same issues as American with the terminal having the same construction problems.

  2. Even when delivering sobering news, you make me crack up. Thanks for the ‘pic’ of Terminal 4, it was hilarious.

  3. From my experience, the main issue is the taxiway/ramp between T4 and T5. When a single plane pushes into this taxiway, it clogs the entire thing not allowing another plane from the East side of T4 or the West side of T5 in or out until it clears. For many of these gates as well, AA flights have to be towed in. If these new gates were added to the East Side or even South end of T4, that’s where the problems are being caused. I arrived on a flight last week that waited nearly 2 hours on the ground (after already being delayed 90 minutes on departure) The pilot indicated that the dispatchers were having to play Tetris to push all of the flights on the East side of T4 and get the new flights in, and there simply aren’t enough gates. (If weather compounds this, forget about it). If this continues, I’m considering switching loyalty to another airline, as there are other options in LA.

  4. LAX based American flier here, usually once a week. Visit Imperial Hill and you can pretty much guarantee to see two or three A321s sitting on the taxiways by the AA hangar, waiting for gates to open up. For whatever reason, A321 capable gates seem to be in the shortest supply.

    I don’t have any data to back it up, but the domestic flights leaving from Tom Bradley NEVER seem to get out on time. Whenever I see that my flight is leaving from there, I prepare for the inevitable holdup. Half the time the delay is due to crew running over from a (delayed) arrival into T4.

    Yeah, it’s summer and that means the usual suckathon at LAX, but I’m glad you brought this up. Looks like American’s eyes were a little bigger than its stomach with this latest expansion.

  5. AA’s LAX operation is unusual in that the regional operation is completely separate (by literally almost a mile) than the mainline operation. It’s also quite unusual that the regionals apparently consistently do much better than mainline. Does this just say that the remote Eagle terminal is a significantly more efficient place operationally (from the aircraft point of view; obviously not from a passenger point of view due to the busses)?

    The Eagle terminal doesn’t have the issue with a single taxiway between two terminals clogging things up that AA does on either side of both T4 and T6; Eagle doesn’t have to wait for a DL plane over at T5 to get out of its way before taxing to/from the gate.

    Also, has there been an increase in the number of Eagle flights out of LAX? There’s certainly been an increase in regional capacity with more flight switching from 50-seaters to 76-seaters. But has the increase in number of flights been mostly or entirely mainline? Obviously, if there’s no significant increase in the number of Eagle flights, it’s pretty obvious why Eagle’s operation has been hurt more in line with DL and UA mainline (indicating airport issues, not AA-specific issues).

    1. Alex – Yes, Eagle has new flights as well. For example, it does the Portland flying, some Seattle flights, the seasonal markets. Looking back, Eagle appears to be fairly consistently running about 1/3 of American’s LA operation. So it seems to grow with mainline.

      1. There are 19 (nineteen!!!) flights today between LAX and PDX on five different airlines. Do Delta, American, and Alaska share code-share on these flights? Is the Delta – Alaska relationship dead yet?

        1. EC – American and Alaska codeshare, but I don’t believe Alaska and Delta codeshare on anything into LA anymore.

  6. Your assessment is right on.  A few days ago I flew American Eagle (Compass) from LAX to SMF to LAX.  On Sunday evening after the door was closed and we pulled away from the gate it took 45 minutes before “wheels up.”  We just sat on the ground away from the gate for about 10-15 minutes before even moving.  And, then we had to taxi over to the North runways and then to make matters worse the inner most North runway was shutdown just adding to the taxi time.  It is just a bad situation.  Of course, I have lost count of how many times I have arrived at LAX especially in the evenings) and had to sit around 20 minutes or so waiting for a gate to deplane.  One other point, my experience is that Compass is one of the better regional providers. The E175 is nice plane, plenty of overhead bin space and the crews are pleasant.  Mike

    1. Yes — agreed. I think the more interesting story here is United’s impressive operation in LAX. Is this indicative of a broader turnaround? I’m curious how LAX plays into their overall strategy given it seems like it’s becoming a smaller hub (e.g,, giving up market share to Delta and American) but does that make it less important. For a while it seemed like they didn’t have a strategy in LA but maybe it’s more focused on execution for now? I’d love to see a post on that.

    2. PF/Joe – I don’t know that I’d call that impressive. It’s certainly better than United has been historically, but United also has the least demand on its gates since it has only shrunk over the last few years. It probably has the best operational situation.

      What United is doing is buying on time performance by padding schedules. If we look at mainline departures exactly on time (D0) vs arrivals exactly on time (A0), you’ll see this.

      June 2-27, 2016
      American D0 46.7%, A0 44.3%
      Delta D0 51.6%, A0 52.8%
      United D0 49.1%, A0 61.4%

      So you can see that United is really putting buffer in there when only 49 percent flights depart on time but 61 percent arrive on time. That’s fine temporarily while you get your operation back in order, but United has recently said it’s going to start tightening that back up. So we’ll see how it goes.

  7. On-time performance. For those of you who fly even a little, those two words probably drive you crazy. I personally don’t care when my plane pulls away from a gate, LAX or anywhere, or when my plane lands. Just tell me, before I buy the ticket, when I have to be at the gate to board, and when I can expect to be able to walk off the plane.

    All of us have concerns when we see the plane not leaving the gate when we think it should be, and we are thrilled when we see that we are landing ahead of schedule. Most of us soon learn early departures foretell us there are problems ahead, and early arrivals foretell the words “penalty box,” and, snickering, “We’re so early, we don’t have a gate yet!”

    I accept that most flight schedules are seriously padded these days, and with all those little regional “operated bys” out there, the skies and airports are going to be a mess. Just give me your best guesses as to what you think the weather is going to be, how the en routes and airports are or will be, and then market to me honestly: “For this flight (service), you will be getting off your plane with 10 minutes of what we told you our schedule said.”

    When I see things aren’t going as I would have expected, dear airline, you’ll be hearing from me, with me highlighting all or one or more of the below:

    –your schedules are dishonest (they may look good, but they apparently don’ mean anything to you),
    –your dispatchers don’t know what they are doing; maybe it’s how you schedule aircraft–“Awaiting aircraft” is sure used a lot, don’t you think?)
    –your ground crew plane handlers are incompetent; (may I suggest you get out of your office and actually watch what they are doing!),
    –your aircraft are the pits; (sure, just waiting to complete some paperwork!)
    –you apparently know nothing about weather, (do you actually employ a even one meteorologist?)
    –you have far too few gates, (or, maybe you just have no clue how to schedule them), and
    –I’ve had enough; so long, I’m going over to someone I think knows how to run an airline!

  8. American also plans a 17 percent capacity increase at LAX in the third quarter, the largest jump for the Big Four in terms of seat growth.

  9. I’m glad to see that everything will be better in July once the new exciting catering service starts providing some of the international flights. WHAT?????? What kind of BS double talk is that.

  10. Brett, AA has gone to hard banking in their ORD, DFW, and MIA hubs. What type of banking are they doing in LAX? Is it hard banks as well? Could a rolling bank work better at this time to spread out the flights to better prevent the tie-ups?

    In an earlier post you evaluated their new banks and showed the improvements in some areas. As LAX is probably more congested than their other hubs because there are more International Airlines using the airport as well as all the majors using LAX as a hub, you will have more gates being tied up as well as Immigration and Customs’ areas.

    1. TC99 – It’s not the same kind of hard banking they have elsewhere. LA is more of a local market that’s not as dependent upon connections. I don’t have any cool graphs or metrics, but they aren’t optimizing it for connections from what I’m told.

  11. American is engaged in an aggressive push to build its schedule at LAX before DL can gain any more gate space. For several years, DL added far more capacity at LAX than AA but AA has spent most of 2016 trying to narrow the gap.

    Delta is supposedly wanting to move to terminal 2/3 by next summer which might help out AA’s operational issues by reducing congestion in the south terminal complex but Delta will also gain more gate space even given that they apparently will be closing parts of their terminals for renovation for several years. AA is wanting to gain gates in terminal 5 when DL leaves it (all subject to LAWA approval) but it isn’t really likely that will work since all of the airlines in terminals 2/3 will have to move to TBIT or T5 (supposedly DL’s plan is to pay for all of those moves.)

    Thus, the larger issue is market share jockeying which can be seen in AA’s filings to the DOT in the LAX-Beijing route case in which AA says that it should get the LAX-Beijing route because LAX is AA’s hub while DL has chosen Seattle as its west coast gateway. The DOT likely isn’t going to buy that logic but it does show how hard AA is working to try to build out LAX and is pushing its gates as hard as it can. DL notes in the same DOT route case that it schedules 10 flights/gate at LAX, the highest of any carrier at LAX and also uses larger aircraft on average although it isn’t certain that will matter to the DOT. AA’s system on-time has been below DL’s for quite some time and has been below UA more recently, even if the difference between AA and UA has been smaller.

    I’m not sure you should give Southwest a pass on their LAX on-time performance. Passengers understand about terminal expansion projects but it is the airline’s responsibility to accurately schedule within the facility constraints. On a larger scale, WN’s system on-time performance has fallen after a few months of significant improvement. I suspect that they, like AA, probably recognize that running an operation with high on-time statistics is costly and requires a lot of backup resources – whether it be terminals, crews, or aircraft – and that WN, like AA isn’t willing to make those kinds of investments at the expense of being able to push more revenue through LAX or their systems even with lower operational performance.

  12. As an American pilot I can tell you in no uncertain terms that, especially terminal 6, DAL controls access to the west side and UAL controls access to the east side. Not so much UAL, but DAL is constantly harassing our pilots. Delaying access to the Terminal 6 gates is a given, with, despite no activity in the alley, DAL will deny access to the gate for twenty to thirty minutes.

    They impose silly restrictions about how and when engines are started and demand we call them as soon as we land, sometimes before turning off the runway. If it wasn’t for the fact that they had to change the phonetic phrase for ATL from taxiway delta to taxiway dixie (dicksy) I might think they are challenged but I think they are just mentally incompetent.

    1. Bardi – Interesting, but that would be an ongoing impact right? American’s performance dropped dramatically on June 2 when the new schedule went into place. I don’t imagine that particular issue was new on that day, right?

      1. Sorry for the delayed response.

        When capacity (for any incompetent management) is at a max, any hiccup will result in cascading and many times make it hard to diagnose the situation properly. So, the constant delays due to external authority(UAL and DAL) for ramp access as well as understaffing (traditionally at PHX turnover for employees was the highest) and a not preparing for a not unexpected gate agent turnover in LAX, it doesn’t take very much to tip into delays.

        My understanding is that the airport authority is planning for DAL to move to Terminal 2 and American to takeover terminal 5, which would help immensely.

  13. I suspect that the real answer is that these “silly restrictions” come down to that American’s procedures are different from Delta’s and that Delta is not going to jeopardize its own operation by operations of another carrier. Given the statements above about AA’s own shortage of certain types of gates and that they are rapidly growing LAX when most people can see that the facility was taxed to begin with, I’m not sure the “it’s the other guy’s fault” argument is going to fly as far until AA is running a pristine operation on its own. While I agree that ramp control should be equitable when multiple airlines are involved, there are mechanisms in place if Delta is truly biased in how it is controlling ramps.

    Lets face it that the competitive environment between American and Delta is intense throughout the world but I’m not convinced AA’s problems in LAX with on-time any more about bias from DL as they are due to other issues including a rapid buildup and a very spread out operation that is putting more and more pressure on the limited facilities that all carriers have to work with at LAX

  14. As a layperson, AA’s attempt to place part of the blame for their performance on its caterer seems like total BS and a poorly disguised effort to put a positive spin on things. If the caterer(s) that AA uses really do delay its flights that much, I hate to think about how poorly AA may be managing other (more safety related) suppliers.

  15. I have 4 words. LGB, BUR, SNA & ONT. In stead of trying to cram more flights into an already severely congested airport they need to move some flights to the other airports. And instead of taking the nimby restrictions lying down (sna, lgb) the airlines should start challenging them.

    1. Aaron is dea right here- I WANT to AVOID LAX 100% of the time if I could –

      AA needs a nonstop am and pm from ONT-ORD – I can’t get ANYWHERE on anybody east of DEN/DFW nonstop or with less than two stops. Give me some choices from ONT with fares that are not $300 more than LAX and I’m there- its worth $100 to not drive to LAX.

      How about some international flights too? or even Hawaii. Or do what TWA used to do an run a narrow body to JDK/ORD to connect internationally every day.

      Ontario has parallel 10,000′ plus runways – lots of gate space and lots of room to expand. Three gates in terminal 2 are blocked off so they can film in them.

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