When the MAX Was Grounded, American’s Scheduling Team Had a Big Problem to Solve

On March 13, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) relented and made the decision to ground all 737 MAX aircraft flying in the US. As the last country to do so, this effectively meant the MAX was grounded worldwide as of that day. Here we are more than one month later and the airplane is still not flying. In fact, American just extended its cancellations over this past weekend through August 19.

For the airlines that operate the MAX, the grounding presented an enormous problem. How could they adjust their schedules to have the least impact on the operation? I had multiple interviews with American to get a full understanding of how the airline sprung into action.

Original image via American Airlines

At the time, American was operating 24 MAX aircraft on 22 lines of flying, almost all of them going in and out of the Miami hub by design. When the grounding went into effect, the airline obviously had no choice but to cancel flights where they stood, but since those airplanes were concentrated in Miami, continuing to cancel all flights scheduled on the MAX for any lengthy period of time was a non-starter. For example, American had two daily flights to Quito, both on the MAX. It couldn’t just abandon that market. And more than half of the flights between LaGuardia and Miami were on the MAX. Again, canceling those outright wasn’t an option.

This was a squishy situation. Remember, when the airplane was grounded, it wasn’t clear how long it would remain on the ground. American initially set up a schedule that was MAX-free through April 24. Two weekends ago, it extended that to go through June 5. And now, this weekend it extended through August 19.

During this time period, American was supposed to be taking delivery of more MAX aircraft, and it had already put them in the schedule. So during late April and through May, it actually had 26 lines of flying scheduled, not the 22 that were flying at the time of the grounding. It only got worse during the summer period as more airplanes were scheduled to be delivered.

Dave Scott, American’s Managing Director of Flight Scheduling, was immediately focused on looking for aircraft time that was available throughout the system as slack. Could they cover some of the MAX flying with other airplanes without having to disrupt the operation? They could, to a limited extent. But April had more slack than May, and of course, May had more than the busy summer season.

During May, American had two airplanes that weren’t assigned to the schedule. They were immediately pushed into service to fly some of the flights. American also had an aggressive schedule putting airplanes into maintenance to get the new fast wifi installed. It suspended some of those lines to keep airplanes flying instead. It also found it had some extra time on the 757. Remember Quito? American took that extra time along with a maintenance spare it had at JFK to fly that flight. Some of this was a calculated risk. It did reduce the buffer American had to recover from operational issues, but it was more important for American to keep as much flying as it could to avoid disrupting customer plans, especially close in.

In the end, Dave explained that American was able to cover around 2.5 lines of flying out of the 26 through June 5. It wasn’t going to save everyone, but it would at least plug the most important holes and keep some flights operating. There was less slack to play with during the summer.

Once that had been worked out, the problem was turned over to Jason Reisinger’s team. Jason is the Managing Director of Network and Schedule Planning, and they were left trying to figure out how to run a schedule with a couple dozen airplanes immediately out of service. It was determined that they needed to cancel about 85 flights per day through June 5, but that grew to 115 during the summer.

This could have been done hastily, but Jason’s team poured hours and hours of work into trying to optimize the schedule. They didn’t look at only MAX-operated flights. American looked throughout the network to figure out what it could cancel on non-MAX airplanes and then use those airplanes to cover MAX flying. The goal was to cancel as many long flights as possible where reaccommodation options were easy. If they could cancel one long flight instead of two shorter ones, that would impact fewer customers.

The perfect example of a market that fit the bill was, as Jason explained, Dallas/Ft Worth to Hartford. There were two 737-800 nonstops per day in that market, and American opted to cancel one of them. At nearly 1,500 miles, it was a fairly long stage length. The airplane left DFW at 12:48pm and didn’t get back until 9pm that night. Further, that route overflies four other American hubs — Chicago, Charlotte, DC, and Philly — that could absorb reaccommodated passengers. By canceling one of those flights, American could free up a lot of aircraft time and have a minimal impact on customers.

This wasn’t just about geography, however. American also examined bookings and tried to target flights that were more lightly booked with fewer people. And when the time came to make hard decisions, it took profitability into account as well. Some exceptions were made for markets considered strategically important, but for the most part, the airline put out a schedule that was thoughtful and had the least impact on travelers. But this wasn’t just about the schedule. This required working with all parts of the company to push it out properly.

The last two times, American has had a highly-coordinated effort. Even though the schedule change went into effect over weekends, flights started to be blocked from selling a few days before as they started finalizing. The flights were just “zeroed out” so that no seats were shown available for sale.

Then on Sunday morning, there were emails sent directly to impacted customers. Travel agents received queue messages with changes along with a comprehensive policy on rebooking options. American’s automated rebooking tool kicked in and had over 99 percent of the people affected rebooked within 24 hours.

Now the question is… how many more times will American have to do this? Though they wouldn’t comment on future plans, they did admit to looking through the next couple of schedules to come up with contingency plans in case the cancellations need to be extended further.

While the process is now set for how to handle this, future changes are going to be harder. Though there is more slack past the summer peak, there is also the expectation of having more 737 MAXs in the fleet. There is more flying to be covered every week that passes.

So far, American has avoided looking at options like acquiring older aircraft or extending retirement dates of existing airplanes. It hopes that this grounding won’t go long enough for that to be an issue. But I imagine if things continue to drag on, the unthinkable may have to become possible.

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42 Responses to When the MAX Was Grounded, American’s Scheduling Team Had a Big Problem to Solve

  1. Kilroy says:

    This kind of thing is very, very interesting, and I’d love to hear more analysis and discussion on this topic. A Cranky podcast interview with a relevant person would be great as well.

    I’ll be even more interested on how airlines re-instate the plane once it’s approved for service.

    When the Max is eventually allowed to fly again, it will be interesting to see how it is integrated into airlines’ schedules. Presumably the Max’s date of re-entry into service won’t be a total surprise to airlines, but depending on the notice they receive (and how much maintenance work has to be carried out on the planes before they can fly passenger revenue service again), I’m guessing it wouldn’t make sense for airlines to schedule a ton of additional flights starting only a week or two out.

    • Anony says:

      +1 on the podcast idea.

      I would also find it very interesting to compare and contrast how American, United and Southwest reacted. Did any of them look at acquiring older aircraft or extending retirement dates of existing airplanes? Or did they all just run with less slack and cancel the flights that had the least impact on travelers?

      • SEAN says:

        I had a similar question., how were Delta, United & Southwest effected by the Max grounding & what workarounds did they come up with.

      • CF says:

        Anony – I was hoping to do that, but neither United or Southwest were able to get back to me with concrete detail in time. United has a much easier time with it since they have so few aircraft. The airplanes are also highly concentrated on a few routes, so it’s easier for them to recover.
        They’ve only had to cancel a few flights. Southwest has had a much tougher time, but I am still waiting for them to explain what’s happening.
        American seems to have been the most thoughtful with how it approached the issue so far.

  2. A says:

    What is Southwest doing to cover the loss of the MAX? Didn’t they have the largest fleet of them?

    Imagine that AA has plenty of old mad-dogs in the desert that could come back for an encore should it come to it. Which brings up the question, how many 737NG are in long term storage? All the photos of Victorville and the like always shown the widebodies. Do airlines ever park the single aisle workhorses or do they only go to the desert to become beer cans???

    • grichard says:

      I wonder something like that too: When airlines retire old planes, do they sell/dismantle them immediately? Or do they hold some of them intact in the desert for a while before scrapping them, in case a need arises?

      • tvmccabe says:

        It depends on the aircraft.   Sometimes aircraft are flown until they are due for heavy maintainence overhauls and then put in the desert, sometimes for sale, and sometimes to cannibalize.  Other times they are just put in storage for future use, and reactivated for use when needed.  I suspect many of the aircraft the Max’s are replacing are being permanently retired.   And with such short notice it will be impossible to overhaul many, if any, of the retiring high time airplanes in time for the summer.Sent from Samsung tablet

    • Av8trix says:

      Airlines would have to retrain pilots who are no longer qualified on the retired aircraft, which takes time and money, not to mention pulling them out of the operation from the airplanes on which they are current. They’d also have to update pilot/mechanic manuals and add the aircraft to the carrier’s ops spec. It’s not as easy as it sounds to bring retired aircraft back into a fleet.

    • CF says:

      A – Well, I asked Southwest and was promised a response but never got one.
      From what I can tell, they’re just trying to run too tight of a schedule and then are canceling a lot of flights. But I haven’t been able to really get answers.

      Also, regarding Mad Dogs, they really can’t bring those out. As others mentioned, there aren’t pilots available to actually fly those airplanes, and re-training takes a long time. Further, even the ones they have still flying today are coming up for heavy checks. Even if they aren’t, on Jan 1 all aircraft are required to have ADS-B and the MD-80s don’t. So it’s just not feasible to squeeze much out of them.

      • Stewart says:

        A quick Google search of ADS-B transponders showed pricing between $400 and $4,500, which in airline terms is $nothing, so I could not imagine this having any bearing upon MD80 retirement dates.

        • CF says:

          Stewart – It is most definitely not as simple as buying a transponder online and installing it. Nothing with the FAA is simple (except, apparently, getting a new 737 model certified). This is a non-starter from what I’ve heard from everyone I’ve spoken to.

  3. Sam says:

    Another impact of this has been higher prices. I regularly fly out of CHS and have noticed quite a bit of downsizing in AA aircraft this summer, which is resulting in fewer available seats and thus higher prices. The A319 flights to PHL are now showing as E190s, 738s to Dallas are now A319s, etc. (presumably those larger aircraft are getting pulled off to cover MAX routes). Not surprisingly, fares here have noticeably jumped along with the reduction in capacity.

  4. A_B says:

    Speaking of older craft… don’t they have a few of those shiny polished mad dogs just kicking around?

    Throw those puppies on a few short routes maybe?

  5. Tim Dunn says:

    the MAX grounding has now moved into the worse case scenario – loss of capacity through most if not all of the summer season, even as new MAXs are rolling off the line but can’t be delivered. The real concern at this point is airline profit margins since they are pulling the aircraft out of service well after commitments to other cost items including personnel. Revenue will be cut even though other non-MAX operators will be able to continue to grow revenue, shifting profits to non-MAX operators.

    For WN, the situation is even more severe since 8% of their capacity was MAXs for May, reflecting not just the number of aircraft but how those aircraft were to be used on their system. For American, Miami and JFK, two hubs where AA was trying to turn around the low margins of those hubs, will see further poor performance and the combination of the runway construction and AA’s pullback very likely could mean that JFK will never be the final blow that reduces JFK to a spoke on AA’s domestic and transatlantic network.

    Of course AA and WN and UA all will work overtime to minimize the negative financial impact but losing dozens of planes in the key earnings period of the year will have a major impact on all three airlines’ finances.

  6. Raccaemail says:

    The Southwest disaster continues.
    Poorly trained agents who just cannot handle the massive delays and cancellations!
    There is no longer any LUV at SW.
    Too much flying scheduled, angry employees, is this the end for SW???
    Another disappointed passenger here!!
    So bad!!!

  7. john says:

    While this article is interesting, and the problem solving strategies are interesting, the overall problem description and resolution is 100% unacceptable. The largest airline in the world (by fleet size in this case) that made 2.1$ billion profit in 2018, cannot cover-up for 24 aircraft out of service?!?! and they are too cheap to deal with the problem in a way that does not impact customers!?! This is a joke! Talk about excessive cheapness!

    • CF says:

      John – Well, you seem like an expert so let’s hear your solution.
      Remember, labor contracts don’t allow them to just go out and hire other airlines to do their flying. But you seem to have it all figured out, so let’s hear it.

      • Stewart says:

        Their labour contracts don’t stop them entering into a code share agreement, even a temporary one.

        • CF says:

          Stewart – Again, it’s not that simple. I believe American can codeshare on flights marketed and operated by partners outside the US. Within the US, I seem to remember that Alaska was a carve-out but they couldn’t just do it with any other operator. But that’s really irrelevant, because American wouldn’t be bringing in an airline that markets its own flights. That airline would be operating for American and that would be considered a wet lease.

          • Stewart says:

            Thanks for your reply. Qantas and AA are OneWorld partners and already operate code share flights with each other both in the USA using AA metal, and in Australia using QF metal. Trans-Pacific, both normally operate their own planes and while they have a code share set up on the SYD-LAX route, they both only market their own flights. During this short-term AA aircraft capacity shortage in the USA, I would be thinking that it might make sense for AA to temporarily take their minimum two 777’s off the Sydney route and redeploy them inside the USA. Qantas probably have adequate capacity (majority flights are A380’s) to absorb the extra traffic, especially as many of their normal passengers who are destined to connect to destinations other than Los Angeles, would be perfectly happy to be re-routed on other existing daily Qantas direct services to SFO and DFW. Same for West bound services into Australia where Qantas have direct USA services not only to Sydney but also into Melbourne and Brisbane, and could spread the load in that way.

            • CF says:

              Stewart – Qantas and American may codeshare but they are no longer joint venture partners. (They are still trying to get that pushed through.) If American canceled its flights, it would get no revenue from putting people on Qantas. It would be just like putting on any other airline, and American is not going to do that.

    • tvmccabe says:

      Sorry, John. Your lack of understanding on how complex airline planning and operations is showing. Throwing money at this problem will have very very limited impact. Sorry.

  8. TriGal says:

    I appreciate that operators are pre-cancelling through mid-August, which seems very pro-active and in the best interests of their customers. But just last week, FAA said it’s targeting late May or early June for approving Boeing’s proposed changes to the 737 MAX and issuing an airworthiness directive that would mandate the upgrades and clear the way for US MAX operations to resume. If that’s the case, I wonder what each carrier will do from (let’s be conservative here) June 15 until mid-August. I can’t imagine that it will take 60 days to update the software and train pilots (and whatever else it’s going to take put these aircraft back into service)? That’s a lot of non-operating aircraft for a lot of days!

    • CF says:

      TriGal – Apparently some of these airplanes are being sent over to storage, so that means there will be work required to bring them back into service.
      I don’t know how long this will all take, but American has said it hopes and thinks the airplanes will be flying before Aug 19. If that’s the case, they will come back in as spares to help cover the schedule. I think for American, they wanted to stay ahead of this thing as a precaution. If they sold too many seats during the summer and then had to cancel at the last minute, it would be very bad news for everyone. This way they can cancel when flights aren’t yet full and they can move people around. It gives them flexibility.

  9. tvmccabe says:

    It will be interesting to see if the MAX cancellations drive up fares during the summer, and/or how much of the traffic spills over to non MAX operators like Delta, Jetblue, Alaska, etc. I suspect either way Boeing will have a lot of cash compensation to shell out, including the probable price reductions on MAXs to get the orders going again.

  10. Ian S Littman says:

    Sounds like a perfect opportunity for Sun Country to comb AA’s schedule and throw any planes that aren’t already at full utilization at routes that are suddenly spill-able due to low capacity/high fares (or just plain cancellations e.g. DFW-BDL). If AA/WN don’t get desperate enough to buy that airline for their 737-800s (that would be an enormously desperate move though, as I’ll bet Boeing would be happy to sell them NGs, which should have decent resale value even after MAXs start filtering back in).

    Delta is going to have a banner quarter as the only national non-ULCC that doesn’t have to work around The Magical Disappearing MAX. And I’ll bet fares will be high enough to push traffic onto Spirit/Frontier that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

    FWIW I’ll bet Alaska is pretty happy to have their mixed fleet right about now; as I recall, they have some Airbus new deliveries, so they can likely largely mitigate cancellations by moving ex-VX aircraft around. Though said aircraft might be fuller due to absorbing folks that would’ve been on UA MAX9s or WN MAX8s.

    • Brendan says:

      Alaska doesn’t have any MAXes yet, they were supposed to start MAX operations in July of this year

  11. Oliver says:

    Just got a schedule change notification yesterday from United – they upgraded EWR-MAD in May from a 757 to a 777-200. Quite the increase in capacity and the seat map looks wide open (may not mean much, I know). Made me wonder if they had a spare 777 to throw at that route, so they could use the 757 to fill in for a 737-9. If so, nice upgrade for F passengers.

  12. Sharkar says:

    The one variable nobody is really talking about is customer attitudes – at least initially there will be reluctance to fly on the MAX8. That’ll probably smooth out eventually but customers will be nervous, at least. The one good thing is American (and Southwest) pilots apparently handled any issues just fine and/or American (and Southwest) ordered planes with better configurations (assuming the rumors are true that Lion and Ethiopian ordered planes that didn’t quite have the “best” sensor package).

  13. Jerry Noel says:

    It took all the way to the bottom of responses to get to the question I had at the top.
    How are the airlines gearing up to answer questions from the public regarding if they will be flying on a “max” and how are the staff being trained to handle adverse reaction to the plane.
    Also how will the carriers web sites display the 737 Max 8 in the equipment part of the display.
    I don’t know how the carriers displayed their Max aircraft on their sites prior to the grounding and will that perhaps change to a generic 737.
    There will be public trepidation but will Boeing and the airlines be able to overcome the fears of a jittery public.

    • CF says:

      Jerry – The airlines have been more preoccupied with what happens before the airplane goes back into service. Once they have clarity on that, they’ll do more with planning how to handle the MAX when it comes back.

  14. Stewart says:

    Did AA not have ANY recently retired aircraft that they could temporarily put back into service? That sounds surprising.

    What about using their American Eagle subcontractors to temporarily operate a few of the shorter less well patronised routes that AA usually operate themselves?

    • tharanga says:

      Agree. There has to be something out in the desert that could be useful. If not the mad dogs, then, something else. or can’t they lease some lift from somewhere? I’m surprised by this.

    • CF says:

      Stewart – It’s not nearly that simple. Even if there is an airplane that they could press back into service, it can’t just be fired up in 5 minutes and sent off. Plus, there’s a need to have pilots to fly the airplane.
      It’s really not easy.

      As for Eagle, sure. American could press into service anything with fewer than 70 seats, if I could find anything. Chances are what they’d find has 50 seats or less and there’s no guarantee there are pilots available to fly those airplanes.

      • Stewart says:

        I’d be surprised if AA would not have access to a few 737’s that were recently retired, when they were replaced by the 737 MAX aircraft that now cannot fly. It should not be hard to give them a quick inspection and temporarily use them again. As to pilots, please remember that one of the big selling points Boeing had for the MAX was that it is the same Pilot type certificate on both models. A pilot who was flying an older 737 who recently upgraded to the MAX, can easily resume flying the older one. The number of AA pilots has not decreased due to the grounding, only the number of planes. So, there definitely should not be a pilot shortage any more than there would be if the MAX was still flying.

  15. Mark Skinner says:

    Just an observation. Airlines have now for a long time been cutting back on everything: wages and conditions, reserve capacity being two examples.

    So, sure, if they paid better, and had more slack in the schedules with more aircraft, they’d probably have the resources to cover for most of this.

    However, that would cost more.

    These sorts of difficulties are just the price we pay for lower fares. Annoying for those affected, but unless we are prepared to pay a lot more, it’s one of those things we need to put up with.

    I’d also point out that if an airline is going to claim damages from Boeing, it must show to the court that it did everything it could to mitigate the loss before making a claim. This article tells me that a big claim is likely headed Boeing’s way.

  16. Jon says:

    Bring back the Maddogs!

  17. Chris says:

    Does AA really think when FAA allows the aircraft back in, customers will happily book them?

  18. Eric says:

    Thanks for the behind the curtain insight!
    I agree with others that the fascinating part of this mess will be how MAX users handle the fleets reintroduction. When I was a wee lad the ‘Death Cruiser’ 10 was the butt of many dark jokes and fodder for late night comedy. As the news cycle turned the plane lost it’s scary rep and went on for another 30 years of service.
    Of course….those were more analog times so public concern was muted to letter writing, telegrams, res center calls and poorly organized ‘boycotts’.

    It will be interesting to see how they manage public perception in the age of Insta-everything.

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