American’s New Senior Vice President of Los Angeles Gives The Airline’s Vision for the City

American, LAX - Los Angeles

Back in May, Suzanne Boda was named American’s Senior Vice President of Los Angeles. The creation of this role was a visible symbol that the airline wasn’t about to back down from its dogged pursuit of Southern California glory. On the eve of the launch of American’s newest Asia route this Sunday, Los Angeles to Beijing, I sat down with Suzanne at LAX to get a better sense of her, and the airline’s, plans for Los Angeles.

When Suzanne was working to turn around Philadelphia with US Airways, she focused on two things. The first was to “take care of your employees which is the same philosophy we have today at American Airlines. We went through the entire airport where our employees were and the breakrooms probably hadn’t been renovated in 25 or 30 years and essentially gutted that and renovated it. And we gave them the tools they needed to do their jobs.” The second involved building community. “… a lot of us being out there for events, being part of the chamber, various nonprofits, getting our employees involved in Do Crew [US Airways community service group] events. That changed the perception in the community.”

This is a blueprint for how Suzanne wants to run LAX, but LA isn’t Philly, of course. Suzanne was quick to point out that “what’s different about LA is this is probably one of the most competitive airports in the country. We happen to be the largest airline flying here both domestically and internationally, but it’s still very competitive. There’s not one hub carrier. Effectively we all operate here fairly close to each other. How do you differentiate yourself here because we want to be the hometown airline? When [people] think of going somewhere, [how do we make sure] they think of American Airlines first?”

Some of it involves stepping up community efforts even further. “It’s not just putting your name on a wall somewhere saying ‘I support this organization’…. We want to make sure our employees are engaged in the community as well as having our name out there…. Doing things for our communities like last month we built [a playground]. It’s roll up your sleeves…. You know, we employ 6,000 people in LA, and that’s a lot of great, great jobs. Career jobs, high-paying, great benefits. We want those kids to be our employees in the future.”

That kind of outreach helps, but first, you have to get the basics right.

Oh, And the Operation Matters
The baseline for being able to compete requires an airline to run a good operation. The situation in Philly was far more dire when Suzanne arrived there, but American has had its struggles at LAX. She didn’t mince words when I asked what was on her list of priorities. “First of all, improving the operation. That was number one because you can’t run a bad airline and continue to have your customers be loyal supporters.”

Last summer the airline hit a nadir, especially in June when the operation went off the rails. Suzanne wasn’t in LA then, but she was overseeing hubs and gateways at the time.

“We did a really deep dive to figure out what went wrong and what went right and how we could capitalize on what went right. It was sort of a perfect storm last summer where we knew we were going to have construction. What I believe we did was underestimate how difficult it would be to operate under that construction…. We did survive, and we did provide a decent product last summer. It wasn’t great, but I’ll say it was decent.”

This summer, things have been running much better. June 2016 was miserable for the airline, especially its mainline performance. Look at what a year can do.

Remember, this is departures exactly on time (D0), so the standard Department of Transportation (DOT) metric of arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule lies well above 80 percent. And it has only continued to improve since then. Since July 1, 69 percent of mainline departures from LAX have gone exactly on time or earlier.

How did this come together?

Our friends in network planning… spent a lot of time with us out here. We did a deep dive into ‘how can we move the schedule?’ We even moved some [flights] by 2 to 3 minutes to reduce gate congestion, and it really worked.

American also focused its fleet. “We moved all the 767s out. Just having a couple of widebody aircraft types to focus on is a much better maintenance plan.”

Improvements In the Short Term
The operation is working well for now, but the passenger experience needs to be better. Further, this is still an airport that’s becoming more and more constrained every day. With every airline eyeing growth opportunities, I wanted to know what American would do to stay ahead of the curve.

The time seems right for American to work on this. After years of uncertainty, the airline’s footprint at the airport is fairly stable. Now that American has swapped its four gates in Terminal 6 for four in Terminal 5, it has established its domain in the southwest corner of the terminal area.

There will be minor growth. Next year, for example, Terminal 5 will be refitted to have 2 additional gates. One of those will be American’s to have (the other is common use).

But the real focus is more on making minor shifts to improve the operation. For example, once the midfield concourse opens and relieves pressure on the Bradley Terminal’s existing gates, airlines can shuffle and American will get more room in Terminal 5. It will give up some of the gates it uses in Bradley when it can, mostly in the morning when things aren’t as busy. (Though it will keep gate 151, a narrowbody-only gate is shares with Copa.)

The biggest improvement, of course, would involve ditching the Eagle’s Nest with its 8 remote gates for regional flying, but that’s not happening soon. “I think that’s TBD. But we are thinking about that, and working with [Los Angeles World Airports] on that. It’s tough because it’s 8 gates over there and that is a lot of flying. There’s really no way to just put those on Terminal 5, for instance.” For now, American has had to settle for minor fixes, e.g. replacing those ancient 1970s school buses with modern buses.

Beyond that, the airline refreshed the old Delta SkyClub in Terminal 5 and took it over once Delta moved out. With that open, it shut the Admiral’s Club in Terminal 4 to completely redo it. That will reopen before the end of the year with a completely new design, including a Flagship Dining area.

American is also pouring effort into something you may not think much about, the customs and immigration facility in Terminal 4. “If you come in now it’s narrowbody-capable… you go right downstairs, there’s the APC kiosks, Global Entry. If you don’t have any bags, you can leave. If you have bags, today you have to go over to [Bradley]. We’re renovating the baggage claim carousels today since they were essentially inoperative.” This should be done by early next year. Remarkably, clearing customs in Terminal 4 vs Bradley improves connection time by 50 minutes. This could result in a dramatic reduction in minimum connect times after American gets this up and running.

There are other small touches as well. In Terminal 4, American has gone so far as to think about its lighting.

In the foreground above is the new lighting with a higher ceiling. Beyond is the old, darker arrangement.

Improvement In the Longer Term
LAX is perennially under construction, and that won’t change anytime soon. It’s going to take several years, but by the middle of the next decade, it’s going to be a very different experience flying American there.

LAX is working on the LAMP, its giant project to build a people mover to connect the terminals to long term parking, a new rental car center, and more. The train will go down the spine of the central terminal area, and there will be a stop for Terminals 4 and 5. But here’s the plan: The distinction between Terminals 4 and 5 will virtually disappear.

American CEO Doug Parker was in town earlier this year to show off the airline’s plans for these terminals. Suzanne explained, “There will be a bridge [from the people mover] that will flow into our headhouse. You’ll go right across the bridge into our big open check-in area. That will flow into security and from there you can choose whether to go into Terminal 4 or 5.”

In other words, Terminals 4 and 5 will essentially become concourses of one big terminal all connected behind one security checkpoint. With the connection to Bradley that already exists, there will be easy, free-flowing movement between Terminals 4, 5, and Bradley. (Only the Eagle’s Nest will remain on its own.)

Improvement In the Longer, Longer Term
In the even longer run, American hopes to add 10 gates at LAX, but that’s just a hope and a dream. “There are no details right now.” Still, with American and every other airline wanting to grow, how on Earth is the airport going to avoid pure gridlock?

There’s a lot of work being done with “surface management” to try to improve arrival and departure rates. That and nextgen air traffic control are going to have to find a way. But without new runways or the invention of beaming technology to make runways obsolete, I remain concerned about LAX’s ability to handle future growth.

Maybe all this expensive construction will raise costs so much that the airlines don’t want to grow as much. Or not. American sees LA as incredibly important to the airline, and it’s not going anywhere. I’ll let Suzanne finish this post herself.

I will tell you the opposite of it being expensive to operate. It’s expensive not to operate here. It’s the third largest corporate market in the United States. It is probably one of the two, if anybody outside the US comes to the US for the first time, they either come to LA or New York. We capture that business market, but we also capture leisure here. This is our one and only large gateway to Asia. Is it expensive? Yes. But it’s more expensive not to be here.

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32 comments on “American’s New Senior Vice President of Los Angeles Gives The Airline’s Vision for the City

  1. American really needs to work hard to keep my business. I’ve been Exec Plat for a number of years but I’m sick of circling around LAX’s tarmac looking for a gate and then waiting an hour or more for my bag to come out. And most of their flight attendants don’t even greet you when you board. I’m just about to switch back to Delta or United.

    1. Ditto for me. The baggage delivery situation is inexcusable. It takes a minimum of 30 minutes –
      and usually more – for the carousel to start moving, and it’s been that way for YEARS. It’s equally bad at DFW and even worse at ORD and MIA. American doesn’t offer the baggage delivery guarantees that Alaska and Delta do, because they know they can’t. They’ve had structural issues with timely baggage delivery for a long, long time and there seems to be no momentum to fix it.

      Gate holds are frustrating too. Ironically, you almost never have to wait for a gate at the Eagle’s Nest, but if you’re on mainline heading for Terminal 4, you’re almost guaranteed to sit, particularly if you come in early. United is no better at LAX when it comes to gate availability, though – just look toward the sand dunes at any given point in time and you’ll see plenty of globe tails waiting for a gate.

      1. Last year I took a bright and shiny new AA 787 from ORD to DFW — and spent more time waiting for my bags to come out than I spent in the air.

      2. American, Delta & Frontier all have MAJOR baggage wait issues in Denver, don’t know if it’s because the airport is so big or what, the last 3 times I’ve flown I have waited :45 min or more to get my luggage. This past spring it was American and it was an 1:50 before bags showed up.

    2. “And most of their flight attendants don’t even greet you when you board.”

      Oh no, how dare they! Don’t they know that you are an Executive Platinum! The horror!

      1. Silly comment. Nothing to do with status. Every passenger deserves to be greeted, and the flight attendants for the airline I fly (not AA) do a really nice job greeting every customer that comes on the plane.

        1. If you put out horrible entitled energy people pick up on it. Having flown on over 30 different airlines on every continent this year…most say hello, some do not if busy, does not bother me. Usually another FA will come say hi…its not the end of the world. Switch to UA or DL and I bet the same will follow you…because its you, its impossible to not be actually. That you gripe about it, shows whats going on in your head. Whats in your head is what gets projected back to you. LAX is a mess, deal with it. It’s not them, its YOU!!

          1. I could not agree with you more. I am relatively new to the game, only traveling for 10 years, 5 years as Executive Platinum and I will say the majority of time you get back what you put into it. If you’re a tool, you get what you deserve. I have a theory that everyone should work in retail/customer service for two years, kind of like the draft. That will make you a better customer.

  2. It will take more than a break room to change the toxic attitudes of the former USAirways airport staff at Philadelphia International Airport. In most of my travels I’ve always found the prevailing mood to be unwelcoming. The staff always seem unhappy. Sort of like a dark cloud hanging over the place!

    1. Yes, the AA staff at DFW seem to be remarkably more friendly than those at Philly. In a way that can’t just be attributed to Texas hospitality.

  3. I wouldn’t call it the highest priority, but increasing the height of the ceiling like that and putting in better lighting really does improve the vibe and mood of a place, especially when so many airport concourses have a tunnel-like feel down the center, even with floor to ceiling windows on the sides.

  4. Sounds like the hand to hand combat with AA, UA, DL and WN in LAX will continue full throttle into next decade. Alaskan will probably jump into the fray as well as their merger works out.

  5. What LAX needs is to have off site passengers drop off sites and trains running to the airport. The traffic now as it has been for decades is horrible, and that’s a nice word to call it.

    AA at LAX must still have ex-AIRCAL Renoair and TWA workers besides AA and now US, so it must be a unfriendly group of us against them atmosphere.

  6. This reminds me of an anecdote relating to highway expansion: cities expand the number of lanes on their highways thinking that the extra bandwidth will reduce congestion. It never does because people just end up driving more.

    Anyway, it’s similar with airports like LAX and JFK to a lesser extent. No matter how much extra juice you can squeeze out of this particular rock, congestion will stay roughly constant.

      1. That’s not an apples to apples comparison though. ATL’s bread and butter is connections and the majority of the airport’s flights are managed under one carrier’s roof so schedules and operations can be planned more efficiently. LA and New York are more local markets fragmented between dozens of airlines great and small. That’s dozens of airlines’ network planning teams and station managers and flight dispatchers around the world tugging at one slice of the operating environment. Toe stepping is very much inevitable even if it isn’t intentional.

        In any case, ATL still has the land available to expand like that for the next few decades plus change. LA/NY aren’t that fortunate.

        1. Most of the issues I have experienced at LAX are due to lack of gates as opposed to runway capacity. Also, almost all gates that AA, DL, UA, and WN use are under their control, it would be an issue mostly due to the airlines using their gates heavily . I would think that if there were more gates for everyone, a lot of the current issues would be lessened.

          1. The problem is similar though. Atlanta could run out of letters with which to name new concourses before running out of space to build them on. LAX will always be stuck with more or less what it has.

            And even though the big domestic carriers have exclusive use of most of their gates in LA, the fact that they’re sharing runway and airspace with significant operations from other carriers will inevitably lead to extra congestion. Ceteris paribus, the airport with 80% of its operations under one airline’s roof will run more smoothly than one with everyone taking 20%.

  7. Can anyone help me understand why they don’t just close the eagles nest and us hardstands between bradely and the maintenance hanger. I can’t help but think it would be a better terminal experience, and more efficient. Fill up the bus at departure time and take it straight to the airplane.

    1. As someone who does LAX>SFO mostly from the Eagle’s Nest, I have to say, that moving that shuttle operation to T5 has made it a pretty smooth experience for the most part. I was running late for a flight last week. I got out of the car with 30-mins to departure, and was through PreCheck and to the Nest within 15mins. Even had time to go get a coffee in the lounge. The Admiral’s Club in the Nest is great, and you get terrific service. Yes, it sucks to have to take a shuttle, but not the worst…. And if you are retrieving checked bags… well you are going to have to wait a while anyway as others above have mentioned, so the shuttle isn’t going to slow you down much.

    2. Between Bradley and the maintenance hangar is currently a construction site; it’s where the Midfield Satellite Concourse is being built.

      Earlier this year I took a shuttle bus from Bradley to my plane parked at one of the hardstands at the far west end of the field. The Bradley Bus Terminal is a hot, crowded, non-air-conditioned miserable place.

    3. dp flyer – There are too many flights for them to be able to offer busing straight to the airplane. You’d need a lot more of a busing operation to make that happen.

    4. I think the eagle’s nest and midfield hardstands are different beasts. The nest is small jets; serving them directly from the terminal would be just 1–2 buses per jet, requiring lots of bus gates at the terminal, with long queues. It’s much more efficient to have a continuous shuttle serving all the jets together. The midfield hardstands are widebodies, with each bus serving just one plane. Here I’m guessing the reason is safety and efficiency: by having a fixed drop-off point and a safe place to store passengers, buses can just come and go without having to queue up by the plane. Yes, these structures are not particularly nice, but better than waiting on a stalled bus.

  8. I hustled to the end of the article so I could breathlessly make my comment about the atrocious baggage situation, and – ha, I see its been covered. Im lifetime Gold but avoid AA at LAX if I know I have to check. It’s never not at least 45 mins. Really, really frustrating.

    With more and more destinations being served by RJ, the Eagles Nest is becoming more and more of a chafe. I am flying this week on Delta Basic Eco (!) bcuz I’m on a tight timetable and cant afford the bus delays either way

  9. Interesting article – as your articles on the S. California airline business often are. Interesting comments so far as well.

    The reality is that AA can tweak their experience at LAX but they are boxed in just as most other carriers are. They can consolidate a few gates here and there but they will still have a very spread out operation with an Eagle’s nest for years to come and they won’t gain much space in the process.

    UA is in the same situation.

    I know you seem to think that DL moved over to T2 and 3 to help out the on-time situation on the south side of the airport but DL gained gate space and they will use it. It is just too early to start seeing schedule updates for next summer but I feel pretty certain that they will be adding flights, something that AA can’t do as evidenced by their operational challenges in 2016.

    The most interesting statement is the last one about AA having no choice but to compete aggressively at LAX and that is absolutely the truth. It doesn’t change the lack of gate space or the roadway mess which are years away from completion. Given that there is little to no space to grow at other S. CA airports, Angelinos will have to put up with poor customer service at the airport for years.

    It’s also worth noting that the latest DOT LOCAL market share data shows that AA gave up a couple points of market share with DL being the greatest beneficiary. It is also worth noting that the biggest driver of those market share changes are LAX-JFK which was once AA’s biggest market and where AA was dominant but where DL is now the largest airline even from a combined LAX-JFK/EWR standpoint. DL’s addition of LAX-DCA boosted its share as well as growth in LAX-BOS. All of those are key AA markets.

    Also, even though AA is focused on building LAX to Asia, they do not carry either the most traffic or revenue either to Tokyo or PVG, markets where AA, DL and UA all compete. They carry plenty of connecting traffic but they do not carry the largest amount of local market revenue or share in the markets where all 3 US airlines all compete.

    Discussions about what AA is going to do at LAX have to be weighed against data that shows how well they are doing in the market.

    Ultimately, whatever AA does at LAX has to address its market performance issues.

    1. LAX-JFK is not a great market to look at share. AA made the decision a few year back to give up market share and go for the premium cabin. It ditched its cavernous 767-200 coach cabins for the much smaller A321T. So yes, Delta will have a higher share with its mix of 757s, 767s, and sometimes even A330s.

      1. thanks for your response.

        JFK-LAX IS the largest market from both JFK and LAX. AA’s market share in both cities has been affected by its strategy. No one can argue that maintaining a position in either city is important and also defend AA’s A321T strategy. It was clear the minute that B6 announced their Mint product that AA’s strategy would not work because AA competed against B6 and VX as low fare carriers with premium cabins as well as DL and UA (at the time) while everyone except AA and UA also focused on adding coach seats – and have been fairly successful at filling them. When UA left, their share was split about evenly between AA, B6 and DL for the first few quarters. Now DL continues to add capacity including in the premium and coach cabins and is gaining share relative to AA.

        The DOT also reports revenue share and AA’s average fares in the JFK-LAX market have also been falling even as other carriers’ average fares have been increasing. AA gets a much smaller premium than it did even a year ago and far less than enough to offset their much higher unit costs. Given that AA’s JFK-LAX planes carry a much smaller number of passengers than any other airlines’ in the market, it is doubtful that AA can make anywhere close to the amount of money that other carriers do. In terms of local market revenue share, AA is lower than DL and B6 from JFK and also below UA if EWR is included.

        So, yes, JFK-LAX does matter and it does affect both passenger and revenue share on both ends of the market including at LAX.

        and again, DL’s share in BOS-LAX and DCA-LAX also grew. DL was historically not as focused on NE transcons outside of JFK but they are expanding their footprint even as AA is trying to hold onto its dominance in LAX.

        DL also holds a larger share of the north-south west coast market from LAX than AA or UA. AA’s larger size at LAX is largely driven by its larger number of hubs and the amount of local traffic that those hubs support. Both of those dynamics say a lot about where AA and other carriers might be able to grow.

        When talking about the future of the big 3 in LAX, actual market performance has to be considered and major market segments such as the transcons and the intra-west routes will shape which carrier will ultimately have the leadership position in the market and how much can be profitably invested in facilities.

        1. Is my assumption correct that they high fares for premium service that the JFK-LAX market commands, means that that market is even more important that just traffic numbers would tell? Airlines are businesses; the only thing business investors really need to care about is the profitability of their investment. Passenger numbers can predict profitability, but do not necessarily imply high profits (ie ignoring operating costs, six passengers paying four dollars results in 24 dollars of revenue; five passengers paying five dollars each results in 25 dollars of revenue).

  10. Boda was at NW for a long time before moving to US. She’s definitely not a shrinking violet. If anyone can help AA sort LAX out, it’s her.

  11. I worked with her at NWA….she is a results driven manager with a knack for turn-arounds. Turning a pigs ear like LAX into a silk purse…or even a rayon purse…will be quite the challenge.

    That being said she knows how to kindly, gently knock heads and make it happen.

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