American Tries to Fix Its Operational Issues in Los Angeles… and Elsewhere

American, LAX - Los Angeles, Operations

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.

Stacking Airplanes

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.

And finally…

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.

[Davis-Monthan Photo via Joseph Sohm /]

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19 comments on “American Tries to Fix Its Operational Issues in Los Angeles… and Elsewhere

  1. At my small hometown airport (Lansing, Michigan) we have one daily flight to DCA on American Airlines and it has been running several hours late the past three days. After reading this article I’m getting a better understanding of what is going on with the ripple effect in their operation.

  2. Brett, I’m still waiting for your post that takes the new management to task for their poor revenue performance. After all, you told us time and again while you were shilling for the merger about how these guys are wizards at driving revenue. Instead they are lagging the competition and it looks like they are chasing market share by building in places like LAX where you previously said they should contract.

  3. I am surprised yet pleased to hear AA admit that they double-cater dome long haul flights from LAX at times. I know that they do not like this risky and potentially expensive practice. Multiple meal catering for a large jet is not pocket change, even for coach. Can’t you just see it: A long haul, LX to N.Z. is already loaded, fueled and catered, then cancels for (let’s say) a mechanical fault. The catering won’t hold long and I’ll bet it just pains them to toss the double load. Do they have any other options?

    1. They’ve been pretty coy about talking about this situation. I can’t really get much detail on it, probably because they’re doing a delicate dance of not trying to piss off partner they still have to work with.

      1. Realist / Brett – Double catering on an international flight is well nigh impossible. U.S. govm’t regs (USDA) would preclude most of it. Double catering is only practical on domestic legs

        1. I also figured that it means the double-catering is the other way around. If catering delays are at LAX, then if they have a plane flying SFO-LAX-SFO, they cater it in San Francisco for both legs, reducing the demand on LAX catering.

  4. How long has AA been in business??? Seems like those first three should have been the norm since day one and not something they just thought to do now.

  5. I stopped using American Airlines after numerous disaster connections through LAX.

    I found other carriers, that got me throughout the western region, without dealing the AA regional terminal

  6. That double catering all sounds great until you’re in FC on the 2nd leg and all the food has gone bad. Of course, FA handles with style and raids coach to provide sustenance!!!!

  7. Great work, Brett. You were on this weeks ago when you knew AA’s LAX operation wasn’t operating the way it should and called it for what it was. Will be interested to see how things shake out across the rest of the summer. Keep up the good work!

    1. PS I liked that AA didn’t give up on their taxiway excuse… got a good laugh out of that one!

      1. UA blamed the runway into LAX on Tuesday, actually. At least they blamed that pre-takeoff, and then in flight the captain said it was flow control that was the problem (45 min delay or so).

        And then on takeoff, they ran the flight to SF around to the north runway adding a good fifteen minutes to the flight…

  8. Re: Staffing at LAX

    CF, when they talk about a lot of newbies, it also makes me wonder if they are/were working shortfstaffed at some point as well. I can tell you from first hand experience that when the ramp works short staffed, then short cuts are taken. Short cuts = ramp rash sometimes.

    I’ve worked on ramps that if we “worked to rule”, nothing would ever get done at times.

  9. Nice to see addressing maintenance overnight. It’s happened more time than it should boarding at LGA with a plane on the stand overnight and we have do deplane or just wait at the gate for a mechanical.

    I hope this works.

  10. I work in Denver, not for American but in a capacity that I see there daily operation. They are chronically understaffed when it comes to ramp personnel. Aircraft waiting to be parked, gates not being reassigned, leading to aircraft taking unnecessary gate holds. Strange policies about repositioning RJ’s, once they are parked at a gate they don’t like repositioning them, not their metal or some weird policy, this again leads to more gate holds. They seem to be very short sighted, they would rather have aircraft sit I the ramp burning gas and paying crews rather than hiring more ramp crews.

  11. Anytime you double cater for segment thats much longer than say 2 hours its disgusting and has a negative impact on the product. From what I can see management deems this an acceptable cost. Hell they dont have to deal with the ensuing sh1t storm!!!!

  12. It seems there is often incompetent staff at the gates that make planes wait just to have someone [qualified?] to get the jetway to the plane. Then there’s just poor gate planning/movement where they act like it’s a surprise that a plane in the air for 5 hours actually landed. Then there’s operations/whoever that refuse to post updated/realistic times based on late inbound aircraft, not to mention far more mechanicals [as noted] than DL, or even UA as far as I’ve noticed. Passengers always feel that time spent waiting for a gate is about 4X the way they feel about time in the air – and even then pilots aren’t honest and/or announce nothing when you’re just sitting there.

    AA is long past the Merger Excuse – and since they don’t seem to be any cheaper than DL, I can see why DL commands more corporate $$ with their more reliable operation system-wide. And now with AA copying DL’s devalued frequent flier program, what reason is there to stay loyal? Then add on so many inconsistent/old interiors [pm US 321/320, most 738’s etc.] and you don’t have a very competitive product – or certainly no consistency.

    Their corporate b.s. doesn’t substitute for results – and what’s up with using AKL as an excuse [promotion?] when that flight arrives early am and leaves late night, not necessarily the peak times.

  13. How many times has an airplane sat there overnight with a maintenance gripe that no one looked at until the morning crew arrived? That was the most frustrating part for me as pilot and as an aircraft owner. A pilot takes the time to write up a gripe and no one looks at it until the next human being sits in the cockpit because the idiot airline is too stupid to pay the station manager on duty to go through the logs, and look at the problems, see if they are MEL, and get them fixed overnight.

    Then there are the little problems that crop up all the time – it seems like every airline deals with problems as if it is the firs time they have ever had a problem. It takes three times as long as it should to resolve anything because no one has any authority or responsibility.

    You have 12 lavs – one is down – you have a 4 hour leg ahead of you- do you delay the flight 3 hours to fix lav, thereby screwing that airplane the rest of the day, or simply lock it – mark it inop – and fix it at the overnight station? No one seems capable of making those decisions.

    Or if its 105F out – why does it take 30 min to new a new performance computation? You’ve got the damn dispatch paperwork, pull out an iPad and run the damn calculator – again – no one has ever done this before.

    I was on an A320 that had a hot start on #2 at an out station – I’ve flown jets – I heard it. I jumped on the phone right away and took me 25 min first on hold and then waiting for the brain trust to decide a hot start hot section inspection was needed and then cancel the flight before I could be reaccomodated. But – at least I was ahead of the other 142 people on board that aircraft who were instructed to get in line with a single gate agent to be accommodated- thats the other thing – one gate agent to take care of 140 people .. . . seriously?

  14. American used to have a smart, experienced workforce. Over the years this has changed. They need good people to run a good airline. Sadly, American has fired experienced workers and hired cheaper workers. I see this all time from gate agents to flight attendants. Many have trouble with the English language. The acquisitions have been a disaster for employees and passengers. Costs and loads have increased and performance has decreased.

    The new policy of charging extra for seats is crazy! This what I mean by stupid. The highest fare passengers are charged more money to reserve a seat while the lowest fare passengers can reserve a seat. This a path the going out of business. Hello! Anybody in there? Business travelers are what keeps you in business!

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