During a recent trip to Manchester, England, we flew American Airlines from Philadelphia. We had a rolling delay that lasted three hours, but the worst part was how they handled it. Why can’t American Airlines get out of their own way?
Our flight, AA 734, was scheduled to depart Philadelphia at 9:30 pm, landing in Manchester, England at 9 am following the six and a half hour flight, five-hour time change, and some ground movements.
“Technical staff are going through some checks for ETOPs. We will update you again soon.”
ETOPs Checks? That’s a new one on me. The gate staff pushed the departure out 20 minutes initially, the app didn’t update but we continued to stay close to the front. Our assumption was that if this were something more intense, they would have delayed it longer. That act would have cleared the boarding area and stopped the constant stream of people walking up to the counter stating that they have very important meetings in Manchester, and the 20-minute delay would ruin their lives.
It Gets Worse
The 20-minute delay becomes 40, then an hour and before we know it, they have decided that our particular aircraft won’t be leaving Philly for the evening and they will bring us a new one.
This was a little relief when they reached the conclusion to scrap using that particular aircraft and switch to a new one. It felt like the delay should have been more predictable at that time, given that there were two other gates we could see with A330s parked and uncommitted (all other long-haul flights had gone out for the night). Moving catering from one gate to another next door should have been quick and easy, the same for the bags, crew, and everything else.
No. They chose to bring one from the hangar that had not yet been cleaned. This is where management has me utterly confused.
- Why were ETOPs checks not conducted with more time prior to the flight?
- Why would management decide to bring a plane from the hangar that was less prepared than parked aircraft at gates?
Good Service Surprise in the Admiral’s Club
With a little more knowledge about the amount of time it would take to get the aircraft ready, we (and some others from our flight) headed to the Admirals Club – all others were closed for the night. The staff had nearly all gone home but they re-opened the club for business class passengers and elites. There were about a dozen of us in the club as we received further (mis)information regarding the departure of our flight.
Where American really shined was their commitment to offering the club for their guests when it was clearly otherwise closed. Snacks were put away, lights were off, they opened it from scratch for us and that’s appreciated. This included calling the food and beverage manager back in (he was in his car on the way home) who returned to pour cocktails for guests.
Technical Errors and Misinformation
American is bad at getting delay information to guests. Sometimes I would hear about a delay before it was updated on the phone, and other times it worked in reverse. The most egregious issue is the unwillingness to further delay a flight until after the previous departure time has already passed. We would get a text that stated departure was pushed back another 20 minutes (at 9:50 pm) only to not receive the next notification of a delay until 10:00 pm. Clearly, if we are not boarded and sitting on the plane by 9:50, there is no way we will depart at 10, so the numbers are wrong from the start, but that also affects the next departure window as it will be unachievable as soon as it posts.
This creates doubt and mistrust of everyone from the carrier. Why? Because I don’t know when the plane will go. I had a friend who received a delay notification from American for another flight, pushing his departure back 30 minutes. He took his time, ordered lunch, walked up to the gate before the new departure time and the aircraft had already boarded and pushed back. We all know that if the aircraft can go, airlines will want to depart right away and accept that leaving the boarding area can cause us to miss our flights. However, sitting in front of a gate for hours for a plane that clearly is not ready to go is a disservice to customers and frustrates staff.
Gary Leff writes about this often but I hadn’t experienced the technical issues with American’s delays myself. I’m not sure if it is the decision of management in when to post delay times or if it is a technical issue that prevents a timely update, but regardless the result is useless for the customer. At one point in our delay, our flight switched to departed while we were in the lounge and disappeared from the departures board. A member of staff had to call down to ensure the aircraft hadn’t left. It hadn’t, the app changed a half hour later, but this is just one example of how terrible their technology fails everyone.
(Partly) Surly, (Mostly) Elderly Staff
Once we boarded we had a… mature staff. I don’t care what the age, gender, or preference is of the crew – good service is the only thing that matters to me. However, this crew was all near, at or past retirement age and service levels varied depending on the aisle in which they served.
My FA (Sandra) was surly at best. She offered the normal drinks (orange juice, champagne, or sparkling water).
“Would you like a drink?” – Sandra
“Yes, please. Can I just have a glass of ice water when you’re through with the cabin?” (I was in the last row of business class) – me.
“No. Catering hasn’t finished loading the plane.” – Sandra
Except they had. None of the doors were open, at least at the front of the plane and due to our weird delay information issues we had been (oddly) informed that we could enter only once catering had left, which they had.
Staff on my wife’s aisle was much friendlier, though not entirely helpful. She was actively pitching a chocolate mousse that they had run out of – though she knew that the passengers couldn’t have any. Other minor annoyances include not collecting the coats to hang and other very pedantic service issues.
I will compliment the pilot who came out and took the blame for the issue, not him personally, but for the airline.
“We failed tonight, there’s no excuse.” Admirable of him, I appreciate that. But then he said, “Let management know how you feel about it.”
What he fails to realize is that, to the passengers and crew, he is management. He sees a separation that passengers do not.
American Can’t Get Out Of Their Own Way
Every single issue we encountered was an easily solved or preventable concern. Here are the problems we encountered and how they could have been handled better.
- Once there is clearly going to be a delay, push the departure time back a sufficient amount.
- If boarding has not commenced with enough time to hit the next departure point, push it back again, a sufficient amount.
- The app and staff should be as up to date as the back-end systems. Fix that.
- If you have two other planes already at unoccupied gates, solve the customer’s problem first and use those aircraft to get a flight out. The staff has all night to troubleshoot the other issues or pull a replacement aircraft from the hanger.
- Be proactive with your passengers. In addition to a full business class cabin (just two gate upgrades out of four requested) and elites in the back, other passengers deserve something for their three-hour delay. It could be miles, vouchers, or just an apology, but the silence from the carrier sends its own message.
What do you think? Are American’s problems solvable? Why can’t they get out of their own way? Do other carriers have similar issues?