American’s operational challenges (i.e. pilots deciding to stick it to customers) have been garnering lots of media attention in recent days.
They’ve just sent out an email under the signature of AAdvantage President Suzanne Rubin that I much like.
I’ll skip the boilerplate intro and then reproduce sections along with my commentary below:
Prior to recent issues, American has been running an extremely good operation, with reliability measures at their best levels in many years. The recent delays are due to the increase in maintenance write-ups by our pilots, many right at the time of departure. Our maintenance teams are responding appropriately to such reports, which may cause interruptions in our schedules. I know you will agree that nothing is more important than running a safe and reliable operation. Ensuring the safety of our customers is always our highest priority.
They’ve decided at this point that they can’t outright name the bad behavior of their pilots. I get that. “The recent delays are due to an increase in maintenance writeups” is partly correct, it’s also because of an increase in sick calls, they don’t say the maintenance writeups are bogus but do let you read between the lines in saying those writeups are coming “right at the time of departure”
And yet they’re all taken seriously and American is eating lots of staffing and extra maintenance costs as a result. Because it would be a good PR strategy to call fake requests what they are, that would only reinforce a separate meme about not taking safety seriously which would play into the hands of the pilots — undermining confidence in management, to oust the folks who wanted contract concessions, and potentially make it more likely that American would seek a merger partner that the pilots believe would give them a better contract.
American’s challenge is to make sure folks don’t book away from the airline, something the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney has suggested folks do.
We are taking several immediate steps to improve our service during this period. We are proactively reducing the rest of our September and October schedule by approximately one to two percent. These schedule adjustments will enable us to provide our customers with more reliable service while minimizing impact to travel plans. Additionally, we are increasing staffing of maintenance, reservations and airport personnel to offer you more flexible travel options.
All important moves. All costly moves, flying a lighter schedule means less revenue while still incurring all of the airline’s fixed costs for planes, gates, etc.
Reasonable moves in the short-term but they need to find a way to quell the pilots’ rebellion — whether through the courts as was done a decade ago (but would likely be harder this time without a smoking gun showing that this was endorsed by the union, so whom do you go after?) or through some form of concession to the pilots.
But what I really like is this — a commitment they’re making on the service front to their elite members.
Because you are a valued elite member, should you find that on your day of departure these issues will cause you to arrive more than one hour late at your final destination, all you have to do is ask and we’ll do our best to arrange an alternative. We will seek out the best available reaccommodation, whether that is on American or on another carrier — or if you prefer, we will let you cancel your reservation and receive a refund. Your needs are our primary focus.
Bingo. That doesn’t mean folks won’t be inconvenienced. But with more slack in the schedule, and with a commitment to re-route elites on other airlines, as well as offers of refunds without penalty for even a one hour projected arrival delay that should help avoid the very worst that this situation could create — at least for elites.
United had the summer from hell a decade ago when their pilots revolted (and its worth noting that roughly speaking the current problems American is facing only makes their recent reliability on par with struggling United — that doesn’t have any pilot action). It brought the airline to its knees, brought a new Chief Executive (who was a pushover to the pilots), and ultimately played a role in the airline’s entering chapter 11.
On the other hand, British Airways managed to fly through their cabin crew strike two years ago with relatively little disruption. Airlines can manage labor discord.
American seems to have learned from some recent experiences. I have future American travel booked that I’m not walking away from or trying to cancel. But this won’t be painless, and if I’m flying American I won’t be trying to cut it as close as I sometimes do from scheduled arrival to planned meetings.
Update: Non-elites get the same generous re-accomodation policy with a delay of 2 hours (rather than 1 hour for elites).
Update 2: I notice that so far only 1% of American’s flights today have been cancelled (that number could still go up). They’ve only proactively cancelled 1 flight for tomorrow at this point. So perhaps the steps they’ve taken to reduce their schedule and re-accomodate passengers have added enough slack into the system. Perhaps is the best I can say at this point, and someone hopefully even at that, but it’s an encouraging number as of 4pm Eastern.