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Just How Bad is American’s Operational and Safety Performance? The Stats Don’t Look Good

Just How Bad is American’s Operational and Safety Performance? The Stats Don’t Look Good

Just How Bad is American's Operational and Safety Performance? The Stats Don't Look Good

Just how badly is American Airlines performing at the moment?  It’s a question that interests me because just about everywhere I turn there seems to be yet another bad review or social media post bemoaning the state of the airline.  It’s not even like the employees are particularly happy with the direction American is going – or, at least, that’s very much the impression I get when I talk to flight attendant and mechanic workgroups.

It’s no secret that both flight attendants and mechanics have got their fair share of gripes with American – most are contractual issues but it’s interesting that the unions which represent these men and women are starting to slate their own airline for its operational and safety performance.

Let’s not go so far as to call it whistleblowing but some of the facts seem, at least at face value, quite alarming.  One figure that really stood out was the $100 million in fines for various safety violations American Airlines has racked up since 2000.  Admittedly, 19-years is a long time and safety could have dramatically improved in the time.

But a series of recent incidents seem to suggest otherwise.  A couple of months ago, American Airlines hit the headlines when it had to take a dozen aircraft out of service because of issues with the installation of overhead bins on some Boeing 737’s.

Photo Credit: American Airlines
Photo Credit: American Airlines

American said the issue wasn’t a safety concern and had cancelled 40 flights to rectify the problems out of “an abundance of caution”.  Yet, mechanics apparently claimed there were “hundreds of issues – including issues with electrical wiring.”

Many of those issues have been raised by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) who claim American is putting safety at risk by moving engineering tasks offshore where labor is much cheaper.  The union is currently running a high profile campaign against American, although it comes at a particularly difficult time in contract negotiations between the two sides.

There are, however, more safety concerns.  Back in February, the broadcaster CBS claimed some AA mechanics were being pressured “to cut corners or not write up issues to get planes back in service faster.”  The report concluded that the FAA had received at least 32 anonymous reports from concerned workers since 2015.

And let’s not forget American’s insistence on continuing to operate the troubled Boeing 737 MAX despite regulators around the world grounding the jet and its own employees imploring their bosses to follow suit.  Of course, American wasn’t alone in that decision but it only finally stopped flying its fleet of 28 B737 MAX aircraft after the FAA made the decision to issue a worldwide grounding notice.

But perhaps American is performing better operationally?  Well, unfortunately, the data available from the FAA and Department of Transport (DOT) says not.  In fact, many metrics rank American last against Delta and United, as well as a number of other U.S.-based airlines.

Photo Credit: Airbus
Photo Credit: Airbus

Between February ’18 to February ’19, just over 78% of American’s flights arrived on time.  A tad over 6% of delayed flights were as a result of delays caused by American.

In contrast, Delta managed to record an 85% on-time arrival level, with just 4.18% of delays attributable to the airline.  United meanwhile, achieved a 79% on-time arrival level.

Other metrics from the most recent DOT stats are just as bad:

  • There were 150 consumer complaints made against American in February – of the Big Three, United ranked second with 203 complaints and Delta only had 56 complaints.
  • Between January and December 2018, American involuntarily denied boarding to 2,614 passengers.  Only Southwest came close to that level while Delta came in at just 22 involuntarily denied passengers.
  • American ‘mishandled’ 113 wheelchairs in February – only beaten by Southwest.

It’s not even like American is performing that well financially either.  In the last year, the carrier has lost 8 points on its share price which now hovers around $34.  The carrier also failed to make its $3 billion pre-tax profit target for 2018 and charges from the 737 MAX grounding and increasing fuel prices are likely to hurt performance still further.

So should we be concerned? No, say’s American.

“At American, safety is our number one priority,” a spokesperson told me.  “We have a best-in-class maintenance program that meets or exceeds FAA and manufacturer requirements. We also have the best and largest maintenance team in the industry, with over 9,000 FAA-licensed aviation maintenance technicians and over 100 FAA-awarded Master Mechanics,” the spokesperson continued.

“They are the reason we can say with confidence that every American plane in the air is safe.”

In fact, reassuringly, any American employee who touches one of its planes has the power to take it out of service if he or she thinks something is wrong.  The airline also says there are multiple ways for employees to raise concerns, including an anonymous reporting system.

As for the contract dispute, the spokesperson says American is “dedicated to getting an industry-leading contract negotiated for all of our TWU-IAM team members.”

“We have the most qualified and most professional Maintenance and Fleet Service team members in the industry, and American is the great airline it is today because of their efforts. We are in agreement our team members deserve the best contract and we are committed to delivering that to them. We are certain that will happen and hopefully soon.”

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