American Maintenance Delays: Which Are Legitimate?

Filed Under: American, Unions

As many of you are probably aware, American is having huge issues with their mechanics. They’re currently in a labor dispute, and management and the unions will be in court starting tomorrow.

Even though American has had a restraining order against their mechanics for the past couple of weeks, it doesn’t seem to have improved operations much. That’s no surprise to me, since the mechanics vehemently deny that they’re doing anything to cause an increase in mechanical problems.

My posts about American’s mechanics have been getting a lot of comments, and in many cases frustrated travelers have shared their experiences. I do think it’s important to note that while American has seen a massive increase in maintenance related delays and cancelations, there of course are still some “legitimate” maintenance issues. So not every maintenance problem at American is part of their current labor issues.

In this post I wanted to share my take on the circumstances under which I assume a maintenance issue is “real,” vs. situations where I think it may be part of a contract dispute. Let me note that this is partly from having seen some data regarding hubs, and partly based on anecdotal evidence.

Of course American’s mechanics would 100% dispute what I’m saying, since they say nothing is going on.

On days where I’m flying American I have a “process” I go through to gauge the odds of there being a serious maintenance delay, so let’s go through a few points. Let me once again clarify that I’m generalizing here, so there will always be exceptions.

So, here are some considerations:

Are you flying American or American Eagle?

If you’re flying American Eagle, which is American’s regional subsidiary, you generally won’t be impacted by this. That’s because American Eagle has separate mechanics with separate contracts, and they aren’t part of this dispute.

So when I had a mechanical on Saturday on American Eagle that led to a delay of many hours, I knew that was “legitimate.”

Are you flying through an American or US Airways hub?

As it stands, there are two separate mechanics contracts at American. The “former” American mechanics have one contract, and the “former” US Airways mechanics have another contract.

As a general rule of thumb I’ve found that there seem to be more maintenance related cancelations at legacy American hubs than at legacy US Airways hubs.

I’ve found that New York, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas seem to be worst when it comes to this maintenance dispute. Meanwhile I’ve found Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Phoenix to be among the best.

When is the maintenance problem discovered?

Sometimes you’ll have issues that are discovered at the gate, while sometimes the main cabin door will close, you’ll push back, and then the pilots will get some sort of error message.

As a general rule of thumb if a maintenance issue is discovered after the door closes, it’s unlikely to be part of this dispute. Why? Because the pilots aren’t part of this contract dispute, and it doesn’t benefit them to return to the gate.

Where did your plane park overnight?

I’ve found there to be a high correlation between planes resting overnight (especially at legacy American hubs) and there being mechanical issues.

If your plane is flying continuously (like operating a redeye), or if it’s overnighting at an outstation or non-legacy American hub, the odds are lower of there being an issue.

It’s the situations where the plane sits on the ground for a long time, especially at one of the above hubs, where the most issues seem to arise.

Mechanics will often perform some sort of work on the plane overnight, and this gives them lots of opportunities to find things wrong, and not to “sign off” on the plane.

What does the pilot say?

There’s something to be said for how the pilots communicate during delays that should give you a sense of what’s going on. This won’t be the case across the board, but as a general rule of thumb:

  • If the pilots don’t seem terribly frustrated and/or if they say maintenance is working on whatever the issue is, odds are good it’s legitimate
  • If the pilots sound frustrated and/or say things like “we’re waiting to see if maintenance will sign off the plane,” “I’m not sure why they even started boarding because the plane was here overnight and still has issues,” etc. chances are good it may be part of this situation

A real life example

This weekend I flew from Miami to Charlotte roundtrip on American “mainline” (and I had connections, but they were on American Eagle).

The night before my flight from Miami to Charlotte I looked at where the plane was scheduled to come from. It was coming from Havana the night before, and I had a bad feeling. Uh oh… an American plane resting overnight in a city with frustrated mechanics (Miami).

And I was right… the plane ended up being pulled out of service, as the mechanics wouldn’t sign off on it.

On the return I felt much better. I looked at where the plane was coming from for my Charlotte to Miami flight. I thought it was coming in from Dallas, which seemed like bad news. But I also realized it only hard a short connection in Dallas, and it had rested the previous night in Fort Lauderdale. All of that is good news:

  • Fort Lauderdale isn’t an airport with many American mechanics, so chances are no work was performed there
  • The connections in Dallas and Charlotte were both under an hour, so chances are mechanics wouldn’t come into contact with the plane unless the pilots prompted it

Sure enough, the return flight is operating on-time.

Bottom line

The above is my take on the situations where mechanics seem to be playing the most games. This isn’t intended to be a definitive guide of when a maintenance issue is “legitimate” and when it isn’t. Instead it’s supposed to give you a general sense of the odds of things playing out a certain way.

Are you flying American Eagle, was a maintenance issue discovered after the door closed, and/or does the plane operating your flight mostly have short connections that day? If a mechanical arises, it most likely has nothing to do with this dispute.

Are you flying American mainline, was a maintenance issue discovered before boarding even started, are mechanics not signing off on the plane, and/or did the plane overnight at a legacy American hub? There is a decent chance it may have to do with American’s labor dispute.

I don’t recommend judging based on any of the above points individually, but a combination of several factors should give you a general sense of the situation.

Anyone have any other experiences to share regarding American mechanicals lately?

  1. Is AA’s long-haul fleet/ widebodies also affected by this? Have only heard of these kind of delays affecting domestic flights and narrowbodies

  2. I’ve had four flights in the past three weeks. These have resulted in 3 delays and one cancellation. The cancellation resulted in corporate costs for booked space and catering as I was unable to complete facilitating a session the next day. I actively look for alternate airlines now through my corporate portal.

  3. Unions gonna union. It’s like watching a 3 year old cry because they didn’t get the toy they wanted.

  4. There should be investigations and for mechanics/union officials making false reports of aircraft problems they should be terminated and maybe even criminally prosecuted because I’m sure there is some crime associated with filing false reports about mechanical issues when they know none exists. Everything wrong with unions on full display right now.

  5. @Ben Holz — I have had a lot of issues in the past two months with flights on the A330-200 and 767-300. It could be a coincidence (especially for the 763 because it AA notoriously has difficulty keeping those birds in good repair), or it good be part of the Mx dispute.

  6. This dispute has been going on for 3-4 years. American made 3 billion dollars last year. Why do they continue say 5,000 union jobs needs to be out sourced (done by contractors or overseas)? Just give the “guys” a cost of living adjustment without concessions! This should be acceptable to all.

  7. I have refrained from commenting on ANY of these post as I DO NOT enjoy seeing political references/debates on this blog that I enjoy so much…Again, please know, I do not engage and/or comment on the pseudo political post that unfortunately show up from time to time…However on this AA Maintenance topic that keeps popping up and all the angry/selfish [often illogical] responses its generating have finally worn away my resolve…

    The overwhelming responses from commenters seem to indicate that the majority of the people who take the time to post on here are indeed Liberal/Left/Democratic leaning…With that and only that in mind I have one thing to say…

    STOP WHINING…!!! Unions are backers/supporters/FUND-RAI$ER$ of the Left, and vice-versa …In this circumstance we are falling, neck first, against a very sharp double edged sword… Sometimes we have to take the good with the bad and accept that our flight might be delayed or cancelled, however that is happening as a result of a long practiced excercise of collective bargaining…More specifically, working to the rule; historically its quite effective, albeit disruptive…

    So for all my Liberal friends out there, everyone who’s angry at the Chief, mad at “the man”, disillusioned with Corporate America and Big Business, maybe it’s time to support your Unionized workforce at American… ; )

  8. Unions are past their sell-by date. They’re not representing workers who die in coal mines any longer. They’re representing themselves and their bureaucracies and they drag their dues-paying members along for the ride.

  9. I haven’t noticed any changes. I have had only one significant mx delay in the past several months, out of VCE for a reset problem of a computer that the Italian maintenance crew was able to resolve after we returned to the gate, but not deplane. It was two hours. I’ve had a weather misconnect and another weather cancellation. That said, I’m based in SAN, and do most of my international flying out of PHL, although I’ve used ORD and DFW (TPAC flights) in the same time period.
    I’m surprised you’re having so many issues. Could it be that MIA is just a lousy operation? I’ve always avoided MIA because nothing goes out of there on time regardless of the reason. Nonetheless, interesting observations.

  10. Ben, I’m very concerned by this. In August I have an AA flight from MIA-ORD. It’s not the first flight of the day, it’s leaving around 3pm. But I’m connecting to Asiana on a separate itinerary. I booked these months ago and gave myself a 5.5hr layover to be safe. But now I’m concerned if AA is going to screw me royally.

  11. @Ben Holz

    I’m not completely sure that my flight was delayed due to union issues, but my HKG-DFW 777-300 flight ended up being delayed due to 17 hours. This was about 3 weeks ago.

    When I DM’d AA on twitter, they claimed AA192(LAX-HKG) was delayed due to crew rest issues while my flight, AA126(?) to DFW was delayed due to mechanical issues.

    I don’t think a crew rest issue would take 17 hours… and the plane arrived in HKG from LAX at about 5:30 a.m. and our departure time was 7:00 a.m…

  12. My flight from JFK to Dallas on a 757 on Thursday morning was delayed by an hour. This flight was originally at 6:45am and it had parked overnight at JFK. It was obvious this was apart of the maintenance issue when the pilot stated, “Sorry about the delay folks, I honestly don’t know why we were delayed. Maintenance didn’t provide an explanation but they wouldn’t sign off the plane.” And I prove this war word for word. A bunch of people had tight connections which some barely made and others missed.

  13. First, @SEM, thank you for your words. I’m Swedish and I do believe in unions. On the next note, I rarely ever have a delayed flight in Asia where I live. The worst delays of my life were in the US, domestic. In my opinion, just pay the guys fair, and move on. No one wants to wait or be delayed or miss their flight. Me and my brother did miss our flight in Miami in 2011 because of that. Whiney bitches. 3 hours before flight at airport and still in check in when plane took off. AA staff amazing and helped us, but something is wrong with the system.

  14. It is worth looking at some figures

    Average aircraft mechanic pay in the US is roughly $30 an hour. American Airlines pays their guys an average of $30.76. It would seem that’s right in line.

    The argument that AA made millions, or even billions over the last several years is irrelevant. You’re value to a company is independent of their profits. Your value is related to the supply and demand of your particular skill set.

    I do understand AA has a profit sharing program. That’s where you get your bonus for the company doing well.

    However for the mechanics union to demand more $$ because the company is doing well is not a good argument. A company that pays $40 an hour for a $30 an hour position is just crazy.

    American Airlines employees 31,000 mechanics and is the largest airline in the world as far as fleet size goes (950 frames). Southwest only has roughly 2500 mechanics. Let’s not forget southwest has the 4th largest fleet in the world (697).

    I understand that SWA has a single airframe vs Americans multiple types, and American likely has to spread out mechanics more due to more routes, but does that really require 10 times the mechanics? Or is there something on the part of the union going on to keep that number so high?

  15. The other day someone said to me “complaining is like a demonic invitation”

    It made me pause big time. Thought I’d pass it along to you all!

  16. This is for CJ. By booking two separate pnrs (one on AA and the other on OZ) this can cause you problems if the AA flight is delayed and you misconnect. First if you are checking bags AA can only check your bag to ORD. You will need to retrieve your bag and recheck it with OZ. Second AA is only responsible for your flight to ORD. Unfortunately if you misconnect you will be responsible for straightening that out with OZ. Had it all been booked on one pnr then AA could check your bag all the way through and they would be responsible for getting you to your final destination. I have seen this numerous time. It is usually booked this way to save money, but in the long run it can cost you a lot more and a lot of headaches.

  17. Lucky, care to share how would one go about checking the specific airframe for a particular flight (and where it’s supposed to overnight and/or come from before operating a specific flight) ?

  18. Just avoid AA. It’s pure and simple. If you want to live in a city that only has AA option for whatever reasons, then that’s on you. In fact, stay away from any cities that keep you captive to AA, United, or Delta. Problem solved.

  19. They can be on a strike, no problem, at least airlines and passengers can arrange alternative options.
    But unions actually play dirty now. Shame on them. Have no pity with these workers.

    Again, you can launch a strike but don’t play dirty.

  20. This is for Joshua. I can guarantee you the mechanics make way more than $30.76 an hour. That might be a new hires beginning pay, but the senior mechanics make much more. I can say this with all certainty because a senior gate/ticket counter agent (12 + yrs) makes almost $32 per hour. AA certainly wouldn’t pay frontline employees more than employees that deal with the safety of the aircraft. I speak from personal experience.

  21. Lets just say that the mechanic signs off a defect that shouldn’t have been signed off.

    Airplane ends up in multiple bits or at the bottom of the ocean.

    Would you rather get there alive or in a body bag?

  22. @SEM

    You appear to have forgotten or simply don’t know there are several unions that backed Trump so it’s wrong to say Union = leftist.

    I can guarantee you that if the republicans offered pro union policies such as increasing the minimum wage, tax cuts for the workers, healthcare and other pro worker policies then unions would soon switch their support.

  23. @Creditian
    Aviation workers are more restricted in their ability to strike than workers in other industries. In most industries if a labor contract expires unions can exercise self-help such as striking until a new contract is signed. Aviation and railroad labor contracts, however, do not expire, so American maintenance workers are operating under a contract that was supposed to be renegotiated in 2015. In these circumstances if a union wishes to exercise self-help such as a strike, a federal mediator of the National Mediation Board must first declare an impasse, then there is a cooling off period where negotiations continue, then they can strike. The union has asked the NMB to take this action but it has not yet.

    The people suggesting that maintenance is fabricating issues are misunderstanding how these organized slowdowns operate. As SEM mentions, we are probably seeing work-to-rule or a rule-book slowdown. There is necessarily an element of discretion in maintenance outside of critical safety issues. When the union and management are in agreement maintenance workers will take operational needs into account when deciding when and where maintenance needs to be performed. Conversely, when the union is operating with a four year zombie contract they will take the opposite stance, interpreting the rules with the least discretion to disrupt operations.

    When the NMB won’t authorize a strike, this is the only tool the union has to pressure management to enter into good-faith bargaining. I can’t imagine anyone else here would be happy with their employer saying “we know we agreed to renegotiate your contract four years ago, but because we can’t agree on any improvements despite our incredible profitability you are stuck with your old contract forever.”

  24. @SEM Perfectly said!

    I love the blog, even though I know a high % of the readership are millennials and young, inexperienced folks, so I always try to avoid the trap of reading the comments, but sometimes you find some very good knowledge on the comments also so it’s kind of hard to resist.

    Your comment is accurate because the Left can only easily manipulate young inexperienced minds (and the leftists grown ups are only so because they are the manipulators in the form of politicians, etc.) and that’s why you see so many comments with that leaning, they still have a long way to go to discover the true colors of those nasty groups you mentioned.

    Rest assured that there’s also mature readership that knows exactly what you are talking about. Even some survivors of communism who can’t be any more awake.

    @Chris so you think they don’t earn a fairly good wage? you can also send those ungrateful bit*ches to my original homecountry so they can try to survive on a $5 a month salary, enjoying the full benefits of socialism. I’m quite sure there’s a boatload of Venezuelans willing to take their positions as a dream job!.

  25. We had flight AA5697 from Charlotte, NC to Harrisburg, PA scheduled on Friday 28th to depart at 8:25 p.m. and it was delayed three times. Then it got canceled after we boarded the plane (sit in the plane for half an hour). The pilots were waiting for the maintenance mechanics to sign off paperwork on a warning message. We received text that the flight was canceled before the crew even knew it was canceled.

    The union should not interfere with the passenger’s lives in order to bargain their contract. What if passenger has to be somewhere for a funeral or important business deal or see sick relative?

  26. Oversimple post, followed by oversimple opinion. (Exception BrewsterSEA). No helpful insight comes from the UnionsGood/UnionsBad argument and anyway neither/both are true.

    Simplicity is appealing but it wouldn’t have produced aviation, vaccines, architecture, space travel or Linguini in clam sauce. The document that ultimately resolves this dispute will be many pages.

    Trashing the unions will make you feel good quickly but it doesn’t Suddenly Reveal The Truth To The Idiots.

    It’s the worst possible system, except for all the others.

  27. I’m sure the court will find this has just been a giant misunderstanding about a large coincidence (are there degrees of coincidence?) of perfectly legit required maintenance work done in a totally normal manner. The Unions shouldn’t be worried about muli million dollar court fines and sanctions, I’m sure they will present a perfectly logical explanation to the judge on Monday.
    Or it could go the other way.

  28. Oh Lucky. You don’t understand these complex issues and are just propagating inaccurate and false information. Just stop and leave it to actual experts. BrewsterSEA had summarised it perfectly. Mechanics are not filing false reports etc, they’re purely enforcing the rules very strictly. It’s what they’re paid to do after all

  29. @Ron on AA app you can see “incoming flight” info. It’s a small arrow and click to expand…it usually shows up a day or so before flight but will definitely be there day of flight.

  30. @BrewerSEA: Thanks for the great explanation. I do disagree slightly with the last paragraph – while work-to-rule is the only remedy available to unions (people that are supposed to represent the workers), the real remedy for actual workers is to find a better paying job. If they can’t, then maybe their current pay is where it should be based on supply and demand – unless there is somehow a cartel of employers keeping the wages artificially low.

    @BBK: Don’t know what your original home country is, but just wanted to let you know you are not the only one reading this blog who has a first-hand experience living in a marxist workers’ paradise. I grew up in one of those, and it wasn’t pretty (except for the good education system that ultimately helped me leave).

  31. “Your comment is accurate because the Left can only easily manipulate young inexperienced minds”

    That happens on both sides, actually.

    “so you think they don’t earn a fairly good wage? you can also send those ungrateful bit*ches to my original homecountry so they can try to survive on a $5 a month salary”

    What does one have to do with the other? Just because things suck in your “original” homecountry (wherever that is), that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t demand better salaries and working conditions in their own country.

  32. I found my American Airlines delay to be very frustrating last Tuesday evening. I was departing on the new ORD to ATH flight. The delay was about 2 hours and started shortly before we boarded the flight.

  33. Isn’t this the fault of union management? If I was a mechanic, I’d be pretty angry that the union who I pay dues to every month hasn’t managed to negotiate a contract its members find acceptable for so many years. Why don’t they elect new union management?

  34. Looking at AA management’s record of failure in pretty much everything you’d be inclined to blame them rather than the union for the disillusioned mechanics, just like like the disillusioned ground staff, disillusioned cabin crew and the dwindling band of disillusioned customers.

  35. I find this blog to be very generalized so I’m really not sure what to really think about all this. I’ve flown AA a lot over the years and others as well. I’ve noticed some generalized things in that time frame. Such as the 767 fleet seems extremely unreliable. I don’t have facts and figures it just seems like whenever or wherever I’ve been booked on one it seems to have issues much of the time requiring a lot of more time and usually delayed. Ive also noticed all the airlines cost cutting. It’s evident everywhere if you pay attention. Boeing is now in a major major bad way with their max jets. Basically signing off their own work saying it’s good instead of FAA inspectors. I dont have a lot of details here either but it just seems to me playing devil’s advocate here that unbridled cost cutting and corner cutting could very well be at play here as well. I would like to ask you all your opinion I suppose. If we see this as customers and are frustrated by it then I just wonder what is being cut behind the scenes we dont realize. Again, just devil’s advocate. Thoughts?

  36. @Kevin LOL so simple. No one should live in Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte, New Jersey, Philly, Denver, etc… SO SIMPLE!

  37. I asked a family friend that works as an AA mechanic in PHX about the issues, and he said they are all caused by the “former” American mechanics in those hubs. The “former” US Airways mechanics are on a separate contract and are operating business as usual.

  38. I think it is irresponsible to make comments like this based on assumptions and post on public forums. Being an airline employee I can say legacy U S airways practices is to delay maintenance on aircrafts until you have a few of them piled up, that was never legacy AA practices. So if you want to play Russian roulette with your life be my guest. Also mechanics do not just walk up to a plane unless they are called upon so obviously something is wrong for them to be called upon. So obviously you dont care because the only thing you care about is getting to your destination not taking in regards how many violations are broken.

  39. @Duane: If all the maintenance actions taking place this year are motivated solely by altruistic concerns for passenger safety, then what the heck was happening last year when we didn’t see so many maintenance actions? Did the mechanics suddenly start caring for passenger safety this year after not caring last year? And why did all the ex-AA mechanics suddenly start refusing both overtime and maintenance-related trips this year when they gladly welcomed both last year? So, instead of calling us irresponsible for making comments, maybe you should go look in the mirror.

  40. I’m glad you brought up the 767 fleet. Here in Miami they had an extensive 767 B check that ran 99 percent. Which means they got all the work done assigned and the airplane made its scheduled departure. When USAir took over they went to a progressive Phase inspection. The same work is accomplished but over several nights. So instead of the airplane grounded for 24 hours, the work gets done when it sits at night. The results are evident, the fleet is not as reliable. They also changed the way the infamous MELs are worked. Legacy AA would work them several days before they expired, now the new program waits until the last day. Eventually when you play that game, MELs will pile up and bite you in the behind. Legacy AA experienced this that’s why they changed their maintenance program to more aggressively work the MELs.

  41. @ChrisC: Apologies for not including the words, “the majority of”…Thank you for proving my point as to why I avoid anything that even resembles a political post or comment…

    I support unions/unionized workers regardless of how they might appropriate their political funds, the majority of which are indeed more Democratic leaning…And I stand by the statements/opinions in my previous post…If you, [we] support the Democratic party, we need to support those that also support/FINANCE it, even if it means that we don’t get where we want to be right on time…

    @Jordan: I am living for that statement right now…!!!

  42. If at least the mechanics do it on flights leaving to Europe, this means a windfall of EC 261 benefits (on the return only) for the passengers they are inconveniencing. Don’t be selfish, guys. You are trying to annoy the airline, not the passengers (and it pisses the airline off far worse…).

  43. Hmmm…dont know. Last weekend, flew JFK-LHR on a 777. No announcement was made as to what the cause was, but we were delayed an hour. Boarding/departure time on the board just incremented an hour. On asking at the desk, we were told something to do with the cargo door but no detailed explanation given. When we finally boarded the airplane, we took a while to push back and were eventually delayed another hour due to construction at JFK, per pilot comments. Of note – the crew on the airplane itself were fantastic.

  44. In July 2019 (thus far), I’ve been delayed on DFW-BOS, DFW-JFK, JFK-CDG, and CDG-DFW. Only on-time were Eagle flights I didn’t just list. Rationale mentioned in the article regarding mainline therefore makes sense. Three of four delays were because of a seemingly random issues (e.g., “missing electronic chart”) and miraculously cleared up after the DOT officially “delayed” time of 15 minutes past scheduled departure. Literally, to the minute, each time. The JFK departure was the worst, since we waited 15-20 minutes to push, we ended up in a backlog of traffic due to weather. We left the apron as #65 for takeoff; 3.5hrs later, we left. I had been monitoring ATC & departures at our original departure time were running smoothly. Unfortunate combination of circumstances. The CDG departure surprised me since I assume the French mechanics are not part of the same agreement (maybe I’m wrong, not sure). That said, it was again a “maintenance won’t sign off on something” announcement, cleared up immediately after 15 minutes. Perhaps the US unions are coordinating with their French counterparts. A mainline international is likely more important to the exec’s in Dallas. Unions are out-dated and useless. I wish everyone would grow up and stop being so juvenile. I don’t think either side wants to act like babies but they are. Time to stop and let me fly/get on with my life.

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