American Has a Bad June, But United Wasn’t Much Better

American, Operations

Once June ended, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on full month performance data to see just how bad the month was for American. It would have been bad enough if American simply had to contend with the MAX grounding and terrible thunderstorms descending on its hubs, but nay, it had to deal with what it says is a coordinated mechanic slowdown as well. Frequent fliers will all tell you this is real and they’ve felt the pain. But when I pulled the numbers, they told a slightly — very slightly — better story. No, June wasn’t good for American, but it wasn’t as horrible as I expected. Probably the bigger surprise is that United was barely better.

As usual, I turned to masFlight to get the data. Since we’re talking about a mechanic slowdown at American, I decided to focus on mainline flights initially in order to compare apples to apples. Presumably American Eagle regionals would see less or no impact.

For an airline that has focused on departures leaving exactly on time (D0) as its preferred metric, American can’t be happy to see D0 drop from 59.5 percent last June down to 53.9 percent. Of course, what really matters is to see how this compares to others. So…

data via masFlight

As you can see, everyone has slipped. That’s probably broadly tied to weather. But both United and American saw the biggest drops. United’s drop was even bigger than American’s year over year. But D0 doesn’t tell us everything. Southwest always has an abysmal D0, because it has really short turn times and builds in a little buffer on block time so it’ll still arrive on-time. So, let’s look at the Department of Transportation (DOT) metric, arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule (A14).

data via masFlight

Here you can see that Southwest surges with that buffer to a semi-respectable position in the middle. (This, of course, is a far cry from where Southwest used to be when it led the industry long ago.) As usual, Alaska and Delta are best, but with Delta failing to top 80 percent, you know it’s not a good month for anyone thanks to persistent summer storms. JetBlue is always in the back, so we can probably ignore that, but wait, is American really tied with United? Those are bad numbers for both of them. I think everyone expected it for American but not United. And since I know you’re going to ask, here’s what it looks like including regional flying as well.

data via masFlight

As you’d expect, this makes American’s numbers better since Eagle wouldn’t have the impact of a slowdown affecting it. But it also pushes United down below JetBlue thanks to poor regional performance. Talk about a bad month.

While United’s terrible numbers are a surprise — and one probably tied to weather and a couple days with disabled aircraft on; the runway at Newark –, the fact that American isn’t well below the pack is a surprise in the opposite direction. Those numbers don’t feel right, however. We see this first hand at Cranky Concierge every day. American has been problematic day in and day out. (I write this as I see another maintenance delay roll in for a client tonight….) It’s at the point where I’ve (jokingly) pondered charging more to monitor travelers on American, because we know it’s going to be a lot more work. These numbers, however, don’t show that. So what gives?

The real problem isn’t with on-time performance. It’s the number of cancellations that changes the story.

data via masFlight

Aaaaaand there it is. No self-respecting airline should cancel more than one percent of flights in any given month. American has soared to four times that number. (And yeah, I’m looking at you too, Southwest. You used to be good at this.) Here, it’s no comparison. United may be delayed a lot, but at least it isn’t canceling… or is it? Let me add in those regionals…

What you’d hope to see is what Delta has. When you include regionals, the number goes up. That’s because when the weather is bad or there are air traffic control issues, you have to cancel something. It’s generally better to cancel a small regional aircraft to inconvenience fewer people. But even with that, Delta still cancels less than one percent of flights. For American, the opposite happened. The mainline problems are so bad that regionals improve the numbers despite not being great either. Then there’s United. Its mainline cancellation rate is good — seemingly in favor of poorer on-time performance –, but once you add in regionals, you can see where the pain really kicks in.

The story now becomes pretty clear. If you’re flying American or United and your flight goes, then you have a better than fifty-fifty shot of going on time. That’s not as good as it should be, but it’s not as bad as I expected, at least for American. If you’re flying American mainline or United Express, however, then the real risk is in having your flight canceled. American needs to get this fixed, but then again, so does United. I know the weather was bad, but this really is unacceptable for both of them. Yet another point in Delta’s favor….

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54 comments on “American Has a Bad June, But United Wasn’t Much Better

  1. “That’s because when the weather is bad or there are air traffic control issues, you have to cancel something. It’s generally better to cancel a small regional aircraft to *influence* fewer people”

    *Don’t you mean inconvenience?

    1. It’s always interesting to me when I read a thoughtful, well-researched piece and discover the first comment revolves around one minuscule copy-editing issue.

  2. My company has been moving a good portion of our flying to Delta. This is based on the feedback of the employees. The biggest complaints when flying American are the boarding process, the attitude and behavior of the gate agents, never changing food selections in the Admirals Club and the lack of comfort inside of the airplane. Delta is not perfect but they are much better. American has had many years to improve their operation yet they haven’t been able to do it on a consistent basis.

  3. Aren’t the increased cancellations at AA and WN due to the Max being grounded? At least when the media reports they mention the # of cancellations. I assume the reality is slightly different but being without dozens of aircraft you had planned on having seems like a logical excuse for a % of cancellations.

    1. I don’t think those count as cancellations; they’re schedule changes that were made weeks or months in advance.

    2. The Max flights were already pulled from the schedule months ago, so these are new cancellations on top of that…

    3. A – Those do not count in the cancel numbers because, as mentioned by others, this was removed as a schedule change. It would have impacted April numbers when the airplane was pulled right away.

  4. I do wish that the DOT would do something to crack down on Delta’s habit of delaying a flight a long time — often to the next day — and claiming it wasn’t cancelled. I do think there is some customer benefit to that practice beyond just gaming the statistics, since especially in the summer with super high load factors, having a confirmed seat on a flight the next day is often still better than where no-elite-status passengers would be after a cancellation. But it would be interesting to be able to see a stat showing “cancellations plus delays over 6 hours” or similar.

    1. There are sites that track average delays and Delta is not anywhere near the top of the list. Further, the real issue is how long it takes to get a delayed passenger on another flight. That is what the EU measures and passenger payment is based on how soon they get a passenger to their destination. It has been posted before that some of Delta’s excessively delayed flights operate nearly empty. If Delta can figure out how to protect its passengers on other flights and wants to fly near empty planes around to protect its cancellation performance, then I don’t think anyone is really being impacted which is the whole point of all of the government data.

      There is no public information regarding how long it takes to get passengers to their destination after delays or cancellations but there is no basis for believing that Delta’s practice impacts passengers any more than the outright cancellations that other airlines do.

      1. I think that would be an awesome idea, and while there are absolutely obstacles to overcome (voluntary SDC/standby, missing a connection due to the airline vs missing it bc they stopped at the restaurant for a meal, getting rebooked on another carrier, having 2 carriers in an itinerary, etc.), that would likely change air travel for the better and get carriers more likely to begrudgingly move people to another carrier or rethink crew scheduling to not schedule them so tightly.

        1. It won’t happen because low cost carriers are the least likely to protect passengers on other airlines – WN included – and there is no way the government is going to push any thesis that says that even some legacy carriers provide better service than legacy carriers – or any differences in service levels between carriers. All they quantify is for services all carriers offer – whether paid or not.

    2. I was once on a DL flight that was delayed 13 hours and I only know that because I looked it up later. They put me on an AS flight and I got into my destination only two hours later. They don’t just delay the passengers a half day, they try to figure out other ways to get people to their destination.

  5. The article perfectly explains why my company is giving most of its business to Delta. And when I fly personally I will book a Delta connection over an AA non-stop.

  6. CF,
    while you can only show what the data shows, the real question is why AA’s performance is so bad – and not much better than UA’s.

    All of the rain in the Midwest and central US (including Texas) in the spring has led to a lot of thunderstorm and ATC days in the central US including at DFW and ORD.

    I don’t have the stats but I would bet that the number of hours of ATC delays this summer has been worse in the NE corridor which affects DCA, PHL and NYC for AA. The 3 NYC airports are regularly in ATC delay mode in the summer w/ PHL usually joining them; the difference this year appears to be the much more regular addition of the WAS airports.

    AA has compounded the problem by dramatically increasing the amount of flights at DFW only to have to cancel a lot of that additional capacity when weather issues strike. AA has always had difficulty operating on-time in anything but ideal situations esp. at DFW; adding more flights has only made it worse.

    Add in that AA, UA and WN have cancelled MAX capacity in advance so the MAX can’t really be blamed for increased cancellations – but all 3 airlines probably have less spare capacity to help recover than they have had in the past.

    Airline earnings start this week and will provide the financial implications of all the operational data that you are seeing. Most airlines have not updated their 2nd quarter guidance but Delta has and said it will be at the high end of its RASM guidance with very high load factors on industry-leading additions of capacity.

    Delta is running an even better operation compared to its competitors, accelerating a trend that has been taking place for months. Business passengers esp. cannot continue to endure lengthy delays and excessive cancellations on a sustained basis, esp. in markets that connect over hubs anyway- exactly the traffic that AA and UA said they were trying to grow with new flights over their mid-continent hubs.

    It is also clear that AA’s claims that the unions are tanking its operations are not supported by data. AA was simply not running a very good operation before and a host of factors are now making things worse. When you accuse your employees of something that is of your own doing, you not only poison the relationship with them but you still haven’t fixed the problem – but now your customers have been dragged further into your internal issues.

    AA and UA have got to figure out how to operate in a complex and competitive environment. Their business model – far more than the low cost and ultra low cost carriers – provides alternatives via carriers that have figured it out.

    2019 is going to be a financial disaster because of the MAX for WN. AA and UA have other aircraft but have also faced challenges – some of which, like Mother Nature, are not predictable but have to be managed. You are right that AA and UA have to get this fixed and until they do, passengers will avoid both even above the MAX issues.

    1. Tim – There is little doubt that the union is having a very real impact here. That doesn’t mean AA would be running a great operation otherwise, but there is pretty clear evidence.

  7. Forgive my hardened cynicism here, but *WHY* do they have to improve? Who and where is the public going to flee to? Not like there’s a dozen other airlines to choose from like there was twenty years ago.

    1. All of this happens at the margins. I live in St. Louis. If I want to fly to Lima, I’ll probably fly American. But I fly to Jacksonville a lot, and I have viable connections to there on Delta, Southwest, or American. In that instance, I book away from AA.

      Stuff like this only has to happen sometimes to influence airlines’ finances.

    2. They’ll flee to Delta (and Alaska if they’re on the west coast.) Both carriers have shown an unwavering dedication to ontime performance, and between the two of them they cover over 90% of AA’s available seat miles.

    3. As Andy said, they’ll jump ship to DL/AS. Heck, since WN arrives on-time-ish, they could go there. And DL has shown that they’re more than happy to add seats for all those folks fleeing the other legacies.

  8. I’m curious how these compare to Spirit and Frontier’s numbers for June. I’d seen some articles earlier this year that indicated Spirit is actually ahead of American in both ontime and cancellations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Frontier is as well.

    1. Andy – I don’t have that readily available, but I would be shocked if Spirit didn’t do better. It sits toward the top of the rankings pretty consistently now. The only wildcard is that Florida had a lot of bad weather, so that could hurt.

    2. I’m surprised I haven’t seen this argument more. With the Max cancellations, it would be logical for the airlines to choose to reduce the slack in the system some (especially their reserves of planes held ready as spares for when planes can’t be dispatched as scheduled), even at the cost of their delay metrics.

      > I suspect whatever slack might have been in the long range schedules got taken out with the MAX cancellations, and when load factors are over 90%, cancellation is no longer an option for some airlines, which is why you’ll see more delays at UA, AA, and WN (in increasing order).

      1. Kilroy –
        I suspect that your observation about losing slack and the ability to shift aircraft around goes a long way to explaining WN’s cancellation rate.

        At least in my experience, WN has minimized cancellations by running as late into the night as they need to with delayed flights.

        They still do.

        On 7/2/19, I was flying with them LGA-MDW. Shortly after we took off, severe (much worst than forecast) thunderstorms hit Chicago, halting arrivals at both MDW and ORD. We diverted to Cleveland, along with three other east coast to MDW WN flights.

        Three of the four flights went on to Chicago after a 3-hour delay; the crew of the fourth had timed out.

        When we arrived at MDW at 12:45 AM, the place was bustling with delayed flights showing departures as late as 2:30. The terminal displays aren’t definitive, of course, but I saw very few flights marked “canceled.”

  9. I remember when the Union Pacific Railroad went through a similar stretch following its merger with the Southern Pacific. Its service levels were atrocious. It took a number of years to get the mess sorted out but it did. These things happen.

  10. Brett, I wonder if weather might be giving a false positive on how bad the problems are with AA right now.

    Can you query in MASFLight to show weather and/or ATC data? In the Ops messages I get daily from my airline, I see GDP’s being expected and/or initiated at ORD every day between June 9 and June 20th, and again from the 23rd to the 28th. That’s over half the month.

    I know, it’s just one hub, but one that both UA and AA happen to dominate, and when you have ground stops and daily GDP’s, it shouldn’t be a shock that their dependability numbers reflect that.

    Looking more at a system level….

    I suspect whatever slack might have been in the long range schedules got taken out with the MAX cancellations, and when load factors are over 90%, cancellation is no longer an option for some airlines, which is why you’ll see more delays at UA, AA, and WN (in increasing order).

    Last thought… I have to wonder if/how AA’s issue with cancellations will manifest itself in yields or revenue… you can’t sustain 90% average load factors knowing you will need protection space for rebooking and space on the other airlines won’t necessarily be available.

    1. Eric – I don’t think that data comes out until DOT releases it. But the airlines play games with that anyway in how they categorize delays so it’s never great.

  11. Ive been stuck with Americans mechanical issues, spent all day going nowhere when 2 777-300 could not be fixed and weren’t allowed to re-book….and 2 weather delays that got me stuck twice and not getting home until the next day….the second delay to DFW was when the DFW ATC got struck by lightning….the good part, almost a 2 hr flight from IAH to IAH on an MD-83….American has crammed 900 flights a day out of here and when something like weather happens, its very hard to recover from the chaos….when we got back to IAH agents were telling people they wouldn’t be able to get home until Tuesday, and this was on a Sunday….

    Why does American need 900 flights a day(going up to 1000 when the new terminal opens) out of DFW….flying on good days isn’t much better, push back on time but are between 12 to 15 for takeoff….management needs to re-think this and go to a manageable number of flights….it seems that Americans profits are going to the upper glass tower people who don’t work the front lines, there is enough money to give the mechanics a raise and work out a new contract, or is Doug Parker to greedy to part with a penny….work out a contact with the mechanics and end this part of the delays dealing with maintenance issues, the weather creates a monster of its own….??

    1. Because DFW is their only central US hub where they have the space to grow, and it’s significantly less expensive and less risky to grow that hub than to open a new one.

      1. a HUB can only handle so much traffic, DFW doesn’t need 900 flights a day, granted it’s mostly for summer but with the mechanics issues and the storms we have had it’s a night mare when something goes wrong.

    2. DFW has excess capacity. AA is screwing everyone over, including themselves, by operating a banked hub again. There was a noticeable improvement in operations when they had a rolling/non-banked hub before US management took over.

      1. the news tonight said people that were suppose to leave on Saturday can’t get out until tomorrow(Tuesday) due to weather on Saturday here in DFW, if something is working, like it was, why must the powers that be mess it up like you said

      2. Very accurate. Banked hubs are much more of a strain to ATC. Not surprisingly, ORD has two carriers doing it and both have the same architect, Scott Kirby. There is a limit for the size of banked hubs and DFW is clearly past that limit.

  12. This is excellent work.  You’ve sorted through the numbers to find the ones that tell the real story.  Thanks for the insightful analysis.

  13. The fact that only Alaska can run at least 80% of their flights within 14 minutes of being on time is not good. Even Delta, who claims to be on time, can’t do that for an entire month. These figures should not be acceptable to any of these airlines.

    1. AS has a very small percent of its operations at highly delay prone airports, the largest of which for AS is SFO.
      DL has over 500 flights/day, including regional carriers at NYC’s 3 airports which see constant delays.

      You and others that care about delays should read the DOT’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Report.
      https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/air-travel-consumer-reports
      Bookmark it.

      It includes not just delay information but also cancellations, baggage and wheelchair mishandling, oversales, and consumer complaints. The DOT takes longer to get their reports published but it is more comprehensive than the data that CF posts here…

      btw, on a year to date basis, which goes through April, Delta’s system (including its regional carriers) had better on-time percentages than Alaska and DL had higher on-time percentages than AS for April at SEA, SFO AND JFK.
      on a year to date basis, AS’ DOT on-time ranking is behind HA, DL, NK and Allegiant

      btw to all, AA’s on-time performance YTD based on the DOT’s most recent report is better than UAL but there is still a 5% gap between AA and DL’s on-time, 7% gap UA and DL’s on-time and 4 points between WN and DL.

      UA is actually the weakest performer of the big 4 for the first 4 months of the year. Given the size of the gap between AA and UA even for the first 4 months, it will take several months of underperformance by AA for UA to “get out of jail.” Given that nearly 1/3 of UA’s domestic flights are on regional jets, their combined mainline and regional performance matters a whole lot more than it does for WN or NK or B6 (with no regional carriers) or even DL which operates less than half the percentage of its flights on RJs than UA.

      1. Actually, Tim Dunn, SFO is a very delay prone airport and it is a significant hub now for Alaska. If you look at fly.faa.gov, you will frequently see SFO showing ground delay programs at times when no other airport in the country has them. Alaska’s main hub is in SEA, which these days is a very delay prone airport too due to runway and gate congestion. The main difference is that delays at SEA are usually fairly short (30-45 min) and recoverable, while delays at Midwest and East Coast airports that experience thunderstorms can run many hours and result in numerous cancellations and diversions.

  14. I am a rez agent for AA. The mechanics slow down is real. I am in IROPS mode almost all shift after 8 pm. They are targeting the last flights out and holding aircraft till crews time out so that the most impact is felt by pax. This requires us to put pax up in hotels or put on other carriers because we do not have availability at the last moment, thus hurting us the most. I really fell bad for our flight attendants and crew, because they do not get paid if they do not fly. The two unions are not working with each other and I do not see a happy ending anytime soon. Add the crappy weather into the mix and it will not be a good summer for American.

  15. Your not taking into account the Max aircraft that are grounded that is putting a strain on these airlines resources.

    1. I believe if the cancel is more than 7 days out, it is not reported to the DOT, therefore not included in these stats. As they shouldn’t. I’d hope the airlines are cancelling Max flights more than 7 days out!

      1. Yes, I believe you are correct about the 7 days figure. If all the pre-canceled Max flights were included, I’m sure Southwest would look much worse.

  16. I’ve always wanted to see these airline on-time statistics “handicapped.” i.e. Is United really so bad because they have terrible operations or is it because they have hubs in the most delayed airports due to weather and/or congestion (eg. ORD, SFO, EWR). American probably has the best hubs, yet wretched on time stats. I tried switching from DL to AA a couple of years ago. Disaster after disaster. Can I use United via IAH with similar on time success to Delta? Just asking because I can generally find United or AA first class fares cheaper than Delta coach from MEM. And DL elite benefits are essentially useless. (I’m looking at you regional upgrade certificates).

    1. Yeah, I’m kind of curious about that too. But, depending on where you’re located or doing your business, I’m not convinced it matters so much to customers. Even if DL had a crap operation, if ATL (or MSP or SLC, etc) gets you where you need to go faster because of logistical advantages of the hub, most would still be happy to fly them. For “handicapped” airlines, it may mean they just have to work that much harder to keep up.

      1. barry—the Air Travel Consumer Report kind of already does that. They show a table listing the percentage of delays by cause, including those that are “airline-related.” Of course, the thing that they don’t show is that the “airline-related” delays have a trickle-down effect, so a lot of delays classified as “late-arriving aircraft” may have started as an airline-related delay earlier in the day. It will be interesting to see what American looks like in June once those data are released.

    2. @barry
      Delta says its operational reliability DOES translate into a revenue premium – which might explain why people are willing to buy their first and business class fares, leaving less for upgrades.

      and the US domestic airline was deregulated over 40 years ago. If weather is really a factor that makes or breaks hubs, they should have figured out where they needed to move their hubs.

      And, if weather really is not any more of a factor than other things, then maybe the airlines that perform weak operationally wouldn’t have figured it out regardless of the hub from which they operate.

      ORD is a case study worth digging deeper into. The airport reconfigured runways and yet on-time has been worse. There appears to be a lot more to what causes delays than the weather itself.

      Let’s not forget that DL’s hubs at MSP and DTW sit in very similar weather patterns as ORD. Bad weather at MSP often causes ATC delays because runways are not spaced far apart enough to allow for parallel operations in all weather. MSP and DTW both consistently have better on-time than ORD; DL schedules the majority of flights at MSP and DTW.

      DL operates the majority of ATL flights and AA does the same at CLT; both are fairly good weather cities and rarely have ATC delays unless thunderstorms are sitting within miles of either airport.

      At JFK, there is a significant difference in on-time between AA and DL on one side and B6 on the other. Same for Boston. Even in FLL, B6 has much lower on-time than WN and NK.

      There is a lot more to how hubs are used than any inherent handicap to one city over another.

  17. Thanks for the detailed analysis! This just reinforces my decision to fly mainly with Delta and Alaska. Clearly American has been hit by a triple whammy with the weather, mechanics negotiations and the MAX grounding. It’s interesting that even though Southwest has increased its scheduled turn times from where they were 10 years ago (remember the 25-minute turns!), they are still really lagging in terms of on-time departures (the MAX grounding no doubt isn’t helping them, either).

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