American Airlines: the worst airline in America?

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The state of American Airlines?
  • NTSB
  • The state of American Airlines?
In what can be lightly described as a "bad week" for American Airlines, the Tribune piles it on with a report that a flight from Chicago to London made two unscheduled stops on its way from O'Hare to Heathrow. The first, a medical emergency, was out of its control; but the second, the smell of smoke in the cabin . . . well. The issue was a circulatory fan, which could have been fixed in Heathrow—but, hey, if you're floating 35,000 feet in the air over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and you smell the odor of charcoal, you probably wouldn't panic, would you?

The bad news keeps on coming for American Airlines, which in the past four days has had seats come loose on three flights—this caused the airline to ground eight flights today. But the real damage has come due to a union battle, as summarized in a couple posts on Slate by Matthew Yglesias yesterday. Basically, after American filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they created new labor contracts for their pilots, which weren't very good. Now the pilots are stalling flights and calling in sick in a union battle over new contracts, which could be solved if US Airways merges with the airline. So why wouldn't American agree to the merger? Because its executives stand to get a huge payday out of it.

Until this issue gets resolved, expect to see more American Airlines criticism in the media. On Sunday, acclaimed author Gary Shteyngart wrote a humorous op-ed in the New York Times about his ordeal on a recent American Airlines flight, and in one of his posts from yesterday, Yglesias chronicled the hassle of a recent American flight he took.

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.

As someone who tends to fly American when I travel, I can attest to the frequency of mechanical failures and delays on the airline (though I still think that United is and has always been far, far worse). But what do I know? Despite all the bad news, as early as this summer, American was doing better than ever.

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