Ah, summer. It’s that time of year when everyone is traveling. That means airlines push their fleets hard in order to keep them in the air as much as possible. While summer stress means operational performance can fall off, sometimes it’s worse than it should be. I’ve been watching American’s operation closely since summer began, because it hasn’t been running quite right. Now, in a memo sent to employees, the airline is admitting that yes, things aren’t going as well as hoped. American appears to be using this opportunity to explain what’s wrong, remind employees how they can help, and throw in a couple fixes for good measure. I spoke with Kerry Philipovitch, SVP of Customer Experience for American, to get a little more color on this.
While I had been looking around American’s whole system, there was one area that looked to be performing worst of all. It was just a couple weeks ago that I wrote about the problems in Los Angeles. At the time, American blamed everyone but itself for the issues, but it has now changed its tune. In a letter from COO Robert Isom, American now says that “Summer, with increased flying, heavy loads and disruptive weather, makes running a reliable operation more difficult. In June we experienced all of those challenges.” Well, yes, that’s true. While that’s not a surprise since every summer faces those challenges, the weather does seem to have been worse where it hurts American most. Still, there’s more to it than that, and American is acknowledging it.
In the letter, American identified four areas in particular where it wants to focus. Here they are, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Improving Gate Utilization: We are going to start using our gates more efficiently by parking airplanes in a new and innovative way.
Just kidding. But seriously, you thought it was real for a second, right? RIGHT?
Here are the actual four areas of focus.
Starting Our Day Right: We’re making sure that we start the day off right by meeting inbound crews on aircraft that will remain overnight to understand maintenance write-ups, and communicate them to Maintenance Operations Control so repairs can be addressed overnight. When possible, we’re assigning a manager to be present at every Right Start flight to help ensure that we’re following our departure checklists and we’re ready to go out on time. We’re also working to improve reliability by minimizing aircraft swaps ahead of the Right Start periods. In addition, for critical flights, our dispatchers and pilots will work together and utilize “speed up” flight plans to reduce delays involving crew duty times where necessary.
Every airline has a program where it tries to focus on getting its early departures out on time. Certain flights are particularly important, because if they’re delayed it’ll cascade throughout the day and have a big impact across the airline. I’ve seen airlines call these Star flights, Focus flights, whatever. American is no different with its Right Start flights, but apparently even with this program it hasn’t been getting those airplanes off the gate on time. Or at least, it has done poorly enough to decide it needs to refocus on this.
According to Kerry, almost none of this is really a change from what the airline considers “best practices” today. It sounds to me like a gentle reminder about how this is supposed to be approached. Maybe procedures aren’t being followed as closely as they should be?
The one thing that looks like a change is an effort to reduce the sometimes dizzying number of aircraft swaps. That’s a good thing. NEXT…
Aircraft Damage Prevention: Aircraft damages rose in June, potentially putting our employees in harm’s way and causing completely avoidable impacts to our operation. We’ve been the best in the business at preventing aircraft damage and know the way to continue to be the best: follow procedures and comply with company policies. To help get us back on track, we’re making sure that all customer and fleet service employees complete seasonal safety summit training by the end of this week. Our airport, maintenance and corporate safety team leads are redoubling efforts to audit our compliance with procedures to ensure we’re working safely and taking all precautions to prevent damages to keep our employees safe and our aircraft in service.
I asked Kerry what was causing this. Was it carelessness? Was it something structural? Or was it more sinister, like labor action? She says that the airline doesn’t believe there’s any labor action going on here. More likely is something I hadn’t thought about. There are a lot of newbies in the company. In particular at LAX they’ve recently brought on 400 new people, nearly a third of the workforce. And with people who aren’t as experienced, things can go wrong more easily. I see they’re putting more effort into training so that should help, if this is the real issue.
What else you got?
Revised Maintenance Focus: We’re suspending Boeing 737 trim and finish work at our Tech Ops – DWH hangar through Aug. 23. This will give us more maintenance capacity to support more problematic out of service aircraft and will put another B737 into the network to help cover out of service aircraft. After encountering an issue with the cargo hold floor panels on the Airbus A321H that drove delays and cancellations to Hawaii, we focused on modifying cargo hold floor panels across our entire A321 fleet. We’ve just about made our way through those modifications and are changing the spec on future deliveries to a higher strength floor.
Airlines will usually push off routine maintenance into off-peak times so they can run full schedules during the summer peak. American is no exception to this pattern, but that doesn’t mean it defers all routine work. Now with the operation suffering, it needs more maintenance capacity to handle the non-routine issues that require immediate attention. By pushing off some 737 maintenance, it can not only free up capacity but it gets an extra 737 back into the rotation as a spare. This is all about creating slack.
LAX Improvements: We added more than 20 new flights at our LAX hub in June, including service to our newest destination, Auckland, New Zealand. Despite many months of preparation and the LAX team’s incredible work, we have not been able to operate the significantly increased schedule up to our reliability standards. The effects of this are being felt throughout the system – especially given the number of wide-body aircraft that rotate through LAX on a daily basis. It also didn’t help that we had a B787 out of service for most of the month after it suffered a lightning strike. To help us run a better operation, we’re changing the way we build our schedule at LAX starting in August, with more changes to come this fall. Some delays at LAX were driven by our catering provider, so we started double provisioning on select flights. That means we stock up a flight for both the outbound and return flight so that aircraft will arrive with food for departing customers, minimizing catering delays. We went a step further and selected a new vendor to cater key international routes, which will also help. And it’s safe to assume that we’ll see even more relief once a new gate and a primary taxiway that are under construction at LAX are finished.
Good. There’s some recognition that LAX isn’t simply an issue with gate and taxiway construction or catering. American finally seems to admit that it bit off more than it could chew. It sounds like there will start to be schedule relief in August, though I don’t think we’ve seen anything loaded yet. Then they’ll make more changes in the Fall. I have no doubt there are some external issues here, but it still all falls on American to ensure it can run its operation well.
For what it’s worth, performance in LA has improved since the end of June when I last looked. At least things are going in the right direction. Maybe this letter will help improve things further. Or maybe not. I’ll be watching.