The woes of American Airlines are no secret to the frequent flier. American has been wrecking vacation plans and work trips at a record pace this summer. And there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. What used to be the favorite airline of many frequent fliers has caused many to switch their loyalty. I’ve never been an American aficionado, but I now rank them near the bottom of the large U.S. carriers. To many, they’re the flat out worst. And I can’t argue the point. Here’s why American contends for the title of “America’s Worst Airline”:

A Plague of Cancellations

American Airlines has been in a spat with their mechanics union for the past months, and they are placing much of the blame for their issues squarely on their shoulders. They may be right. A federal court agrees with the airline that mechanics have been purposefully slowing down work and keeping planes in maintenance in order to disrupt the airline’s schedule. While I can sympathize with the situation that American is facing, it has been a massive problem for their customers.

In June American canceled 4% of its entire schedule. That’s huge. Our local airport has an overall cancellation rate of just over 4%, although it feels a whole lot higher than that, and it is a pain. A 4% cancellation rate is ridiculous. Compare this to Southwest’s cancellation rate of 2%. Delta and United had cancellation rates less than 1%. Making some very gross assumptions based on the annual number of passengers carried by American and summer load factors, you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of people affected by said cancellations.

When flights aren’t outright canceled, they are heavily delayed. Depending on where you get the most current data, American is either dead last or second to last when it comes to flight delays and passenger complaints. An astonishing 22.5% of American Airlines flights have arrived late in 2019.

How the airline handle delays is another source of frustration. American Airlines is notorious for rolling delays where customers aren’t updated until much later than they ought to be. In many cases, savvy fliers will pull up the tracking info on their inbound aircraft and realize that it will be arriving later than their scheduled departure. Add in the time it takes to turn the aircraft, and you’re you aren’t getting anywhere on time. All the while the American app will tell you “on time”.

Fleet Stretched Thin Without 737MAX

Compounding their ongoing spat with the mechanics union, American has also been proactively canceling flights due to the 737MAX grounding.  This amounts to 115 flights per day. Flights booked on the new aircraft represent 1.5% of American’s schedule, which accounts for a significant portion (but not all) of their 4% overall cancellation rate in the early summer. The MAX grounding has also cost them $185 million in the second quarter.

Whether people will be willing to fly the 737MAX once it is back in service is beside the point. American is scrambling to deal with the loss of their aircraft, and with so many more planes being delayed by mechanics, their fleet is stretched very thin.

These first two points have combined to make American Airlines the worst U.S. carrier in terms of on-time performance and cancellations. It doesn’t help that when they do completely hose you, they are unwilling to offer any real assistance in most cases. Everything gets blamed on weather.

a row of seats in an airplane

Project “Oasis”

The move to a condensed cabin interior sure didn’t help American’s reputation. This ongoing fleet retrofit has been the source of customer complaints since the airlines first started to roll it out. The “Project Oasis” is anything but. From more rows crammed into coach, loss of legroom in Main Cabin Extra and first class, and the ridiculously tiny bathrooms, converting all 737-800s to 172 seats is painful for passengers. The lavatory is even a source of frustration for pilots.

It does make sense operationally, though, to have all aircraft with the same number of seats. I get that. Just don’t make it so many. But now the whole project is on hold. It’s like American can’t actually decide if it wants to be Frontier or not.

Surly, Unhelpful Staff

I’d read reports of American Airlines staff being gruff, even in their premium cabins. Not flying American regularly, I had no firsthand experience. It took two business class flights, one to Buenos Aires aboard a 777-200, and another back to Miami on a 767, to realize that this characterization is mostly true. On the first flight in particular, the flight attendant was gruff, hardly spoke, and didn’t seem to care about her job at all. When my main course was switched with the person behind me, they were promptly swapped without even a word. The fried chicken actually looked far more delicious than the cannelloni, but because of the attitude, I was afraid to change my choice.

A month later, I had to pull a HUCA with an agent who insisted that American Airlines reduced mileage awards can be booked online. Insisted. I gently tried to tell her that I’d never heard of this being possible, and the website says you need to call. Nope. Do it online. Or pay $40 per ticket (amounting to $120 in this case). She was pleasant enough, but the unwavering stance was frustrating and not at all helpful. I had to wait on hold a second time to book the flights with a much more reasonable agent (so yes they do exist).

No Customer Service Culture

The attitude of American Airlines employees can easily be explained by their own internal survey. Based on employees own reports, the feel that management is completely out of touch with front line staff. When there is a disconnect like this between company and staff, customer service suffers. If American is not going to take care of their staff well, why should staff take care of American’s customers? Often the most senior staff seem to be the most disgruntled. You cannot cultivate a customer-centric culture like this.

In other cases, the airline flat out lies to passengers. Yet another flight cancellation? Yeah, that was weather.

We can also touch on the flight delay issue again. In this data-driven age we live in, it seems like it should be all too easy to automatically delay flights based on the location of aircraft. I’d much rather get a delay notification when I’m chilling in the lounge than after I’ve walked to the gate. Not providing updates is maddening, and unhelpful to passengers. Just tell them the flight will be delayed, and provide a reasonable estimate. Even this adds into a culture of customer service.

Being proactive and honest (and having empowered staff) goes a long way. A recent trip with United illustrates this well. Both the outbound and inbound were delayed by over two hours. On the outbound, the staff were impatient, disgruntled, and not all that sympathetic with customers. Granted, it was after midnight, which made things way worse. However, on the return, the captain did an amazing job of keeping people in the loop with official (and unofficial) estimates, explaining when we were going to deplane, how long it would take us to push back after the thundershower passed, etc. This is the second time I’ve had a captain walk through the cabin to address everyone, and I can say that the gesture goes a long way.

Can American Correct Their Course?

American needs to work on multiple fronts to be able to turn themselves around. They seem to think they want to be a low-cost carrier, yet can’t compete on price. They also want to be a full-service carrier with the most premium product available (what other U.S. airline still has both first and business class?), but your staff are an integral part of this experience. Staff need to understand the company strategy, and American doesn’t seem to have one.

And no matter what, they need a reasonable on-time performance, otherwise everyone will leave off flying them. If a 4% cancellation and 20% delay rate out of ACV is enough to make me drive 4.5 hours to fly Delta (instead of United in this case), I’m never going to touch American.

American 737 interior photo courtesy of airbus777 via Flickr under CC-BY-2.0 license