The timing couldn’t have been more awkward. When I attended American’s leadership conference last month, there was a slide that talked about how much progress the airline had made at reducing “schedule churn,” and I wanted to know more. It took some time coordinate, but a call was set for me to talk to Vasu Raja, the airline’s VP of Planning, last week.
The weekend before that call, American dumped a massive schedule change with a ton of major time shifts that kept me busy scrambling to help some now-angry Cranky Concierge clients all last week. Was this really the era of reduced schedule churn? As you probably imagine, it’s far more complicated than it seems on the surface.
This big change may have actually been the last of its kind, but that’s also somewhat detached from that slide I saw back in February anyway. See, the airline actually has two sets of schedules, and the slide was referring to the version that the public doesn’t see. The version the public does see? Stability has improved there as well, but even with that, you may be surprised to know that a schedule really isn’t final until 100 days before travel. And that is a big improvement.
I’ll admit, I’ve struggled trying to figure out how to put this in layman’s terms. To start, we need to address that issue of the airline having two sets of schedules. There’s the selling schedule, which is what the public sees, but there’s also the operating schedule which is used to help the airline plan everything from staffing to gate availability and any other logistics required to run an airline. As you get closer to travel, these two schedules become the same. But far in advance, they differ. American and US Airways both used to handle building these schedules in different ways.
The Operating Schedule for Planning Purposes
For the operating schedule, American would do a continuous release about 120 days before travel. US Airways would have a release 150 days before travel and another at 100 days out to further refine it. (This isn’t a rolling schedule. These go about once a month, so it’s not exactly 150/100 days.) When you combine that different way of handling scheduling with all the moving parts in a merger, the process of scheduling became pure chaos.
Remember the LAX operational mess in the summer of 2016? American was still changing schedules in late spring, and the ops team at the airline had to scramble to try to support those frantic changes. It didn’t go well. You can layer on top of that the problem of a quickly-changing fleet. American has been adding new airplanes like crazy while it retires older ones. Schedules were simply a nightmare to construct. In fact, I have a photo of what I’m told was the scheduling team handing off an operating schedule to the ops team back in 2016.
As the airline moved toward a release schedule similar to that of US Airways, it found that about half of its flights would change about 150 days before departure. And another 10 percent would change within 60 to 90 days out. That is way too close in for planning, so after much work, by January of 2017 the airline had smoothed that out dramatically so that it could present a more accurate and viable schedule to operations every time.
The Selling Schedule That the Public Sees
On the selling schedule side, all this chaos wasn’t helpful to giving customers faith that the flights they had ticketed were still going to operate. The operating schedule was delivered and revised before the public ever saw it, but when the operating schedule is changing 60 to 90 days out, every change had to be pushed right into the selling schedule with such little time to spare. Sure, people expect there to be schedule changes in advance of travel, but they should mostly be relatively minor tweaks, and that wasn’t always the case. This constant upheaval was causing big problems for travelers, and this was happening close enough to departure that people found themselves stuck without a good option.
This gigantic schedule change two Saturdays ago? Incredibly, before the change, the placeholder schedule being sold was based on a 2015 schedule. Vasu explained that if you did the math, the filed schedule would show that American had an MD-80 fleet far bigger than it does… because that’s what it looked like back in 2015. Those old, out-dated base schedules aren’t being used anymore, so when this big change happened to bring the summer schedule into the world of reality, it will hopefully be the last time something so massive is needed. (I should note that Vasu wouldn’t guarantee it would never happen again. Smart man.)
In other words, what American had published for this summer before that schedule change was simply not possible to operate. That is a frustrating thought for people who plan entire trips around this idea of stable airline schedules. But with the big change done, merger activities winding down, and fleet type replacement slowing, it should become more stable.
Here’s how things will go down in the future.
American begins selling tickets 330 days before travel. Today is March 12, so that means you can buy a ticket for travel on February 5, 2019. Tomorrow you can buy a ticket for February 6, so it’s just a rolling schedule. But the schedule you see is merely a skeleton. That skeleton was far less accurate in the past because of the reasons mentioned above – out-dated base schedules, the merger, shifting fleets, route changes, etc. Going forward, it should be more stable, but it’s still going to be a placeholder that can change.
At 150 days before travel, American will submit a proposed schedule to the operations team to review and use for planning purposes. At that time, American will also publicly push out any major change it knows about, but none of the smaller ones. That includes new markets and canceled routes. It should include things like holiday cancellations so that people have a little more time to adjust plans during those times. Keep in mind, this isn’t a rolling 150 days as is the case at 330 days. American now plans 11 schedule releases a year, so it should cover a time of roughly 150 to 180 days out.
Between 150 and 100 days, Vasu’s team will work with the operations team to address any issues and refine the schedule. It will also make minor adjustments to schedules to account for seasonal block time changes and airport congestion issues. Those are all those annoying changes you see where times move a few minutes either way. In that 100 to 110 day range, American will publish its schedule publicly. According to Vasu we should only see 8 to 10 percent of schedules change, but only at that point can you consider the schedule to be somewhat final.
Travelers who book more than 100 days out, well, be prepared for possible change. It’s true that travelers can use this to their advantage. Book the cheapest flight you can find around when you want to travel, and then when the schedule change occurs, you can move to your preferred flight even if it was pricier. But as Vasu explains it, even this will become more of a gamble in the future with fewer schedule changes occurring, and those that do will happen earlier than before.