Friends Don’t Let Friends Fly American Airlines

A departure sign shows canceled and delayed flights for American Airlines at Miami International Airport on Tuesday in Miami

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

You may have read Gary Shteyngart’s endlessly amusing New York Times op-ed about a nightmare experience on American Airlines over the weekend, but he’s such an entertaining writer and air travel horror stories are so common that I’m afraid some people may miss the core point. You seriously have to stop traveling on American Airlines. Seriously. If you’re booking some travel somewhere, book it somewhere else. If your company has some relationship with American that gives them a strong preference for you to fly with American, still book it somewhere else.

Right at about the same time as Shteyngart’s transatlantic misadventure, I myself was booked on an American route that was supposed to take me from Tulsa, Okla., to Dallas and then from Dallas to Baltimore. My plane boarded about five minutes late in Tulsa, and then the pre-takeoff stuff all seemed to be going a bit sluggishly. Then once everyone was boarded and the plane was away from the gate, the pilot announced that the backup gyroscope was broken and we wouldn’t be taking off after all. The hour-plus delay was clearly going to cause me to miss my connection, but while on the runway I was able to ascertain from my iPhone that my connecting flight was also substantially delayed because the plane was getting in late, so I had some hope. My flight eventually took off about 90 minutes later than scheduled, and I hurried to try to make the connection. Unfortunately, the train inside the Dallas airport (it’s American’s main hub, and American is the overwhelmingly dominant carrier there) was partially broken and only running in one direction, so the train took the long way around, greatly slowing my ability to make the connection. Still, I hustled to the gate and got there two minutes before the rescheduled departure time except … the door was already closed. The plane, however, hadn’t actually left the gate, and there were about a dozen other people outside with me. Normally under those circumstances, an airline will reopen the door to avoid the expense and inconvenience of rebooking everyone, but not this time—the pilot just jetted away.

This turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise for me, since I was able to rebook on a flight into Reagan Washington National Airport, which is much more convenient for me than Baltimore, but passengers who were actually trying to get to Baltimore were pretty screwed. Then I shuffled over to my Washington departure gate, but that flight ended up delayed 40 minutes, and then I got home.

Mine was hardly the greatest disaster in aviation history, but it’s striking that since Sept. 16 fully half of American’s flights have been delayed, while just over 90 percent of non-American flights have been on schedule.

And this isn’t a coincidence. The basic issue is that American Airlines filed for bankruptcy in December not primarily to restructure its debts but to restructure its contracts with the unions that represent its workers. The company successfully used the threat of court orders to induce almost all its unions to agree to givebacks, but they couldn’t come to agreement with the pilots. Then on Sept. 5, American got a bankruptcy judge to throw out its pilots’ contract. Thus since mid-September the pilots have been essentially sabotaging the airline. Some of that has been through elevated numbers of sick days, but the primary tool is overscrupulous maintenance requests. As an anonymous American Airlines pilot explained to the Dallas Morning News’ excellent aviation blog that normal airline operations simply can’t be done this way:

If you ran your car like American Airlines has been running for the last two weeks if your car was leaking oil on the drive, write it up. Windshield wipers streaking, write it up. Shocks squeaking, write it up. Car pulls slightly to the left, write it up. Your wife would be thrilled … until the bill came in.

The other thing (you’re) seeing is guys that used to use their knowledge of the systems to keep it limping along or reset it are no longer helping out. Most of the time the fix is to just reboot the system and seeing if it does it again. Now guys get a message or the system doesn’t preform as it should then instead of trouble shooting and seeing if it does it again they just write it up, “No Bucks, No Buck Rogers” is the saying.

Long story short, American is totally screwed. What management is discovering right now is that formal contracts can’t fully specify what it is that “doing your job properly” constitutes for an airline pilot. The smooth operation of an airline requires the active cooperation of skilled pilots who are capable of judging when it does and doesn’t make sense to request new parts and who conduct themselves in the spirit of wanting the airline to succeed. By having the judge throw out the pilots’ contract, the airline has totally lost faith with its pilots and has no ability to run the airline properly. It’s still perfectly safe, but if your goal is to get to your destination on time, you simply can’t fly American. The airline is writing checks it can’t cash when it tells you when your flights will be taking off and landing.

In my experience, the passengers on a Tulsa-Dallas flight are not super sympathetic to labor unions. But it’s worth emphasizing that one possible resolution of American’s bankruptcy is merger with US Airways—an option that US Airways has been pursuing and that American’s unions say they support. The main problem with a merger as best I can tell is that if US Airways takes over, American’s executives will probably lose their jobs. So the contract fight is, in part, a fight to maintain American’s independence for the sake of its managers. The cost of the fight, however, is that the airline can no longer reliably deliver passengers to their destinations. So stay far, far away.