Just How Did American Perform After Its Pilot Schedule Problem?


Remember way back in early December? There were no absurdly-named bomb cyclones to speak of (if you have had to touch that mess of an airport that is JFK in the past week, my condolences), but there was a looming pilot problem. American made a pilot-scheduling mistake, and there were plenty of prognosticating pundits who predicted the end of the world (or at least the imminent stranding of all adorable children and cats). Now that the holiday season has passed, did all the doomsday predictions come true? Of course not. It was a non-issue.

For those who have already forgotten what happened, here’s a summary. American’s pilot-scheduling system messed up and accidentally started raining down vacation days on pilots during the peak holiday season (December 17 – December 31). The upshot was that American didn’t have enough pilots scheduled to run the operation. The pilots union was unconcerned about wrongly scaring the public and instead selfishly sensed a negotiating opportunity. This gave the general media fodder for a sensational story, and that sent everyone into panic mode. Thousands of flights could be canceled! You’ll never get home in time for Santa! Blah, blah, blah.

Of course, American would never let that happen, and it had the ability to fix the problem itself. As it understood from the terms of the contract, it would offer extra pay to encourage pilots to volunteer to take trips. And then it would also rely on reserve pilots to pick up any slack. This move started to close the gap and fill up flights right away, but the union was still waging war publicly. After sitting down, American swallowed its pride and came to a deal with the union that included even more pay for the pilots. All of a sudden, both sides said that everything was fine and there would be no disruptions.

That period of time has passed, and as you know, there weren’t any broad issues, but I wanted numbers. The masFlight tool I’ve long used to pull real-time flight information appears to have stopped functioning (hopefully this is temporary), so I turned to OAG for data. I focused solely on the mainline operations of American, Delta, and United since the regionals weren’t impacted by this problem. And here’s what I found:

Both American and United completed more than 99 98 percent of their flights. Delta was atypically lower, but that was residual pain from the Atlanta computer power outage. Presumably without that, Delta would have been at the top. Of course, anything over 99 98 percent for American would certainly indicate that there were no major pilot issues impacting the whole system, unless… could they have just taken massive delays and not canceled flights?


On-time performance wasn’t stellar by anyone, but they were all pretty much in line with each other. I should point out, however, that United while United finished slightly behind in arrivals, it was best in other on-time metrics, and it was best in completion factor. From a customer perspective, it’s remarkable to see the improvement operationally at that airline.

But overall, this is just a non-story. There were enough pilots and most people made it where they were going.

I say “most” because there are always normal problems that impact flights without the help of a pilot snafu. So, sorry to the person who emailed every American exec and copied me because using her obvious airline expertise, she had found that the pilot scheduling problem was real and caused her flight to be delayed. No, it didn’t. This was just a pretty normal holiday.

Now, once we got into January, it was far from normal, but that had nothing to do with pilots. These weather mess on the East Coast has made for a very bad situation, especially at JFK, and one that hasn’t gotten much better. The broken water pipe in Terminal 4 is only making things worse. This situation is an embarrassment, but I suppose that’s a topic for another time.

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17 comments on “Just How Did American Perform After Its Pilot Schedule Problem?

    1. Also, the text says that American an United completed more than 99% of their flights, but the graph shows American under 99%, and Delta under 98%.

  1. Your graphs do not support the assertion that United finished best in both completion factor and on-time performance. It looks like Delta was best in the latter.

  2. My wife and I flew UA from CLT to AMS via Newark the day after Xmas. I was seriously concerned because I had not flown UA since Q1, 2016, when their poor performance between CLT and ORD made my weekly commute a misery, and I abandoned them for AA.

    But… UA performed without any issues. The return flight was Jan. 6, so two days after the Bomb Cyclone. The incoming flight from EWR to AMS arrived on time, and left on time. We transferred at EWR without any problems (it was quiet) and with zero status on UA, both my wife and I were upgraded to First on the last leg from EWR to CLT.

    UA’s economy product was par for the course with AA or DL, apart from their food which was pretty horrible even by airline standards. But based on the overall performance, and the much better price for this trip vs their direct competition, UA was a winner this time.

  3. Thanks for following up on this story. In today’s 24/hr news cycle I think things get over sensationalized (politics anyone) but dropped immediately for the next hot story. Six months from now I could make a comment about how awful flying AA over the Holiday’s was and there would be tons of archived stories to support that in theory, yet none that say that wasn’t the case at all.

    From the flying I did around Christmas I’d say the airlines all did a phenomenal job with the crush of people.

  4. Well, I clearly have a holiday hangover on this one.

    *Meant to say 98 percent completion
    *Meant to say “power” outage and not “computer” outage
    *As for on time, I’m just getting used to the way OAG breaks this out. I was looking at other numbers when I said United was best, and those indicate United was better when looking at departures and arrivals, not just arrivals. But this doesn’t make sense to me the way this was broken out. I’m going to get clarity from OAG, and in the meantime I’ve fixed the wording.

  5. I thought of the potential American pilot problems as I sat at SFO awaiting my Sky West United Express flight down to MRY on December 28. It was almost four hours late due to the fact that the pilot had to take an earlier plane up to Victoria and back and that’s what caused the long delay in taking off from SFO. Is there still a pilot shortage with the regional airlines or was this just one of those things that sometimes happen?

    Patrick Dee

    1. Pddee – That’s just one of those things. The MRY flight is a bad one, and it has historically been the first to get delayed or canceled because they’ll just put people on a bus worst case.

  6. Paranoid me, here. When one reads about this stuff, a computer glitch here or there, problems that these things create, plus the awful PR that results, has there ever been a documented case showing that these things aren’t just little errors or innocent mistakes, rather the result of someone who really knew what they were doing to screw up operations, badly? A disgruntled employee, a paid off contractor, or whatever? Really, is it that difficult for someone, a single person, who knows the nuts and bolts of these computer systems to bring down a major airline’s operations?

    I think I mentioned the criminal case of a fixed-base operator in central Pennsylvania who was alleged to carry out some improper aerial communications that messed up an unwanted competitor? Of course, there was the alleged SkyWest pilot at St. George, Utah airport, who seemed to go nuts with a SkyWest jet, making you wonder about SkyWest. Just wondering!

    1. Jay – I’m sure they investigate these things every time, but I haven’t heard about sabotage with these kind of outages yet. It’s bound to happen someday though.

  7. The pilots union’s leadership was annoyed, and rightly so, when Doug Parker reached out directly to the pilots instead of going through the union. Parker is emblematic of AA’s perceptual problems, which were somewhat masked by UAs truly hideous ones, after its 2017 annus horriblus. This is the guy who said, “All of our customers are valuable, but those who pay us the most are the most valuable,” a possibly accurate economic assessment but an utterly tone-deaf marketing observation.

  8. Thanks for doing the follow up story. I knew the scare stories were ridiculous, but since I happened to be flying AA over the Holidays (twice), I had a vested interest in the matter. As I was flying home after New Year’s on a perfectly on-time flight, I thought to myself “the major media outlets will never report that NOTHING happened to American over the Holidays.” I’m pretty sure that’s still the case!

  9. AA clearly paid enough to make sure they didn’t have an operational meltdown over the holidays…. but there really was not doubt that the pilots would work for the right amount of money.

    On-time and cancellation performance is largely defined by external issues and how well airlines manage them…. AA and UA faced far fewer issues than DL in December and early January as a result of the ATL power failure and then the weather issues at JFK where DL is largest and where EWR’s more westerly location made a difference in storm impact.

    On-time performance isn’t determined by a couple week period but by months and months of history. With the winter still very young, it is a given that other hubs besides ATL and JFK will be impacted by winter weather.

    The post script to your story is simply that AA pilots gained an opportunity to pick up a lot of extra money and took it – to no one’s surprise. We still don’t know how much that “opportunity” cost AA but it does validate that, for enough money, people will go to work

  10. Throw enough cash at a problem and everyone is happy, pilots in this case! With cost factored in I’d say that AA did very poorly over the holiday :)

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