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TravelAmerican Airlines passenger recounts 21-hour delay as airline struggles

23:00  12 july  2019
23:00  12 july  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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American Airlines passenger recounts 21-hour delay as airline struggles© Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.

Ethan Wolfe wasn't fazed when American Airlines delayed his flight three times before he got to Los Angeles International Airport Sunday afternoon.

It was the next 13 delays that day that infuriated the 23-year-old music teacher on his way back from a barbershop quartet competition.

The mechanical problems started immediately after boarding. Dent in the engine had to be taped. Crew timed out, everyone off the plane. Air valve issue, followed by a scary brake problem. Another crew timed out. Everyone off the plane for the night.

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At 4:30 a.m. Monday, more than 12 hours after he arrived at the airport and about the time he should have been waking up at home in Philadelphia, Wolfe was checking into a La Quinta hotel 41 miles from LAX.  American Flight 481 ended up departing Monday afternoon, 21 hours late.

"It was one of those things that, as it unfolded, everyone on the plane, we kind of couldn't believe it the longer it went on,'' he said. "I have never had an experience anywhere close to this.''

Wolfe is one of tens of thousands of American passengers caught up in what the airline calls a "brutal'' situation: a spike in cancellations and delays due to maintenance issues. It has snared vacationers like Wolfe and frequent flyers, including Sen. Marco Rubio.

American Airlines blames mechanics unions

The airline blames it on a prolonged work slowdown by its mechanics unions to gain leverage in contract negotiations. It says workers are taking an "inordinately long time to repair aircraft'' and are refusing overtime work.

American warned of summer travel trouble when it sued the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers just before Memorial Day. The unions says there is no organized slowdown and blames American management for the operational woes. American's pilot union also pins the blame on management for not having enough pilots to fill in when problems arise.

The two sides have been in contract talks since 2015 following the American-US Airways merger.

A dispute between Southwest Airlines and its mechanics led to heavy flight cancellations and delays earlier this year.

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A federal judge immediately granted American's request for a temporary restraining in mid-June, but the maintenance cancellations continue a month later. It's as if the temporary restraining order was never issued, the airline says.

In a court filing this week seeking additional measures to compel the union to comply with the temporary restraining order and stop the slowdown, American said it canceled nearly 600 flights due to maintenance issues in the three weeks after the temporary restraining order was granted June 14, affecting 85,000 passengers, including Wolfe. That compares with 644 "mechanics-caused'' cancellations over a roughly two month period (March 8-May 13), the airline says.

American said the number of aircraft out of service at the beginning of the day, which has ripple effects on American's operation and hurts its ability to recover from storms, hit 66 on June 18, one of the highest levels ever and nearly double the level of unscheduled aircraft out of service American builds into its schedule.

"The combined effect of the mechanics' refusal to comply with the temporary restraining order has been brutal,'' American said in the court filing.

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Add in a spike in weather cancellations, especially at American's mammoth Dallas hub, which has been hit with a series of storms, and the carrier and its passengers are having a miserable summer.

American Airlines passenger recounts 21-hour delay as airline struggles© Susan Walsh, AP A passenger talks on the phone as American Airlines jets sit parked at their gates at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 25, 2016.

American flight cancellations outpace other airlines

American led the industry in overall cancellations in June, with 4% of flights canceled, according to aviation data company masFlight,and is on track to take the dubious crown in July, too. American has canceled more than 3% of its July flights through July 10, according to masFlights. Airlines generally aim to keep the figure at 1% or below.

The poor performance this summer comes after American's executives pledged to get the operation back on track following an unexpectedly poor summer in 2018.

"We are dedicated to improving our operations reliability and that work has already taken hold, and we're excited about how we'll perform ... throughout 2019,'' American CEO Doug Parker told Wall Street analysts in January.

The extended Boeing 737 Max grounding, which took 24 planes out of American's fleet beginning March 13, has forced thousands of flight cancellations and given the airline less flexibility when things go wrong, but they represented a fraction of the airline's fleet of 950 aircraft, and those cancellations have been done in advance.

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"People are just mad" at American

Brett Snyder, whose Cranky Concierge travel service includes help rebooking canceled and delayed flights, has heard an earful about American recently.

"People are just mad,'' he said.

Passengers don't care whether their flight is canceled for a mechanical issue, weather or other reasons, Snyder said.

"All they really know is that American is not running a good operation,'' he said.

One of his employees, David Maxwell, had a flight from Dallas to San Antonio canceled Monday on the last leg of a European vacation. His flight was canceled for mechanical reasons, which he knew before it was officially announced because he overheard a pilot telling a gate agent to "enjoy the extra work courtesy of our friendly mechanics.'' They were rebooked on a flight several hours later, never mind he was flying first class and has status in the airline's frequent-flyer program.

"We’re glad this happened on the return flight and not on the way to Europe,'' Maxwell said. "You count your blessings, small as they are.''

Snyder has a flight to Hawaii coming up on American and, like many passengers, is worried. He's not going so far as to booking a pricey back up ticket, as one of his clients did, but said he is "mentally preparing" for a delay.

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American says it's doing everything it can to help passengers and minimize cancellations and delays

American acknowledges its nonstop flight woes this summer might drive travelers to other airlines, short term or permanently.

American Airlines passenger recounts 21-hour delay as airline struggles

American Airlines passenger recounts 21-hour delay as airline struggles American Airlines blames flight woes on a slowdown by its mechanics to gain leverage in contract talks. The union denies it and blames management.

"You always have to be worry about damage, but I fully believe that we can get our customers to fly with us by continuing to take care of them,'' said Julie Rath, vice president of customer experience, innovation and delivery.

Rath said American is using technology to alleviate some of the pain affected travelers would typically incur, such as snaking customer service lines.

The airline is automatically rebooking passengers on other flights (whether passengers like those flights is another question) and seeking volunteers in advance on packed flights to free up space for potential rebookings as needed. Travelers who volunteer get a voucher, travelers who are delayed or canceled get to their destination more quickly.

American is also letting employees put travelers on other airlines as needed to make an important event, loosening a policy it tightened last fall.

And in June, the airline's frequent-flyer program started pulling daily reports on flight troubles encountered by members, zeroing in on those with repeated problems and reaching out to them by phone.

"They're going to, most importantly, apologize and they're also going to talk with the customer. Did they have any out-of-pocket expenses? And offer miles or a voucher for future travel,'' Rath said.

Rath said the outreach has been "extremely positively received'' by American frequent flyers.

American Airlines passenger recounts 21-hour delay as airline struggles© Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren for USA TODAY American Airlines Boeing 737-800 jets trade places at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in April 2019.

What's a stranded passenger to do?

Wolfe isn't a frequent flyer, but he's waiting for American to do something for passengers on Flight 481 beyond covering the Los Angeles hotel and offering a $12 meal voucher. The flight took off 21 hours late.

He reached out on Twitter during the chaos and received a $150 voucher but says that's not enough for the troubles, which included several hours on a plane that never took off. He's submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

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Wolfe is on summer break before starting a teaching job and didn't miss work due to the lengthy delay but said many of his fellow passengers did, including a passenger in front of him who missed his first day on Monday.

Beyond the delays and getting stranded overnight, Wolfe said American needs to apologize for how he and other passengers were treated during the ordeal, especially as the night dragged on. He was especially peeved by attitudes of the customer service reps at the airport when the plane was scrubbed for the night at 2 a.m. because mechanics couldn't fix the brake problem.

"We were treated like we were a problem,'' he said. "They were annoyed that we were there. And they were annoyed that we were annoyed.''

At a minimum, he considers the prolonged travel day a rite of passage.

"You hear about these (travel) horror stories all the time,'' he said. "I’ve just been kind of waiting for mine. I did not expect it to be this way. I really did not.''

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