American Airlines stumbles on path to recovery

By Scott Mayerowitz

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Only 59 percent of American's flights arrived on time in September, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats.com. United's on-time percentage was 81 percent, and the other big U.S. carriers — Delta, Southwest and US Airways — were all at least 86 percent. American also canceled 1,391 flights last month, more than any other airline.

The airline's chief commercial officer, Virasb Vahidi, concedes that American lost money because of the problems. It had to put some displaced passengers on other airlines, and saw a downturn in last-minute bookings — expensive tickets usually purchased by business travelers.

American's cancellations have declined and on-time performance has improved in the past two weeks, since it threatened to haul the pilots' union into court over the slowdown and the two sides resumed negotiations on a new contract. But it's still struggling. American's on-time rate was just 65 percent Wednesday, 11 points lower than its closest major rival.

As that crisis receded, another arose. On three flights, rows of seats came loose on Boeing 757s that had recently gone through cabin renovations that involved removing and reinstalling the seats. The airline grounded 48 planes for repairs and canceled 94 flights late last week, inconveniencing about 14,000 passengers.

The seat issue likely got more attention because American was already in the spotlight over the delays.

Two days in a row, ABC News led off "Good Morning America" with updates on the loose seats.

"It could be sabotage, or it could just be sloppiness. But either way, it's kind of a disaster for the airline," George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, said on the show.

American rushed to say the incidents had nothing to do with its bankruptcy status or labor relations.

The cause of the loose seats — which American first blamed on a part called a saddle clamp, then on soda and other gunk gumming up the locking mechanism on seat-row feet — might not matter. The damage to its reputation was done.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, says American "has descended into and now below mediocrity. It doesn't lead in anything that matters to customers. It doesn't lead in on-time performance, product innovation or the best customer service."

Granted, other airlines have also hit rough patches during bankruptcy. US Airways had a public relations nightmare over the 2004 Christmas holiday when bad weather and a staffing shortage caused nearly 4,000 delays and hundreds of cancellations. Many employees angry about wage cuts and the restructuring called in sick or refused to work extra hours.

Some think American can still regain travelers' trust with a few months of good, solid performance.

"If I'm a traveler who has a choice, I wouldn't book them right now," says Bob McAdoo, an analyst with Imperial Capital LLC and a former airline executive. "But once this is over, I'll go back to picking them for the same reason I did in the first place, whether it was their schedule or something else."

Mitzi Campbell, a management consultant from the Dallas area and top-tier elite flier with American, says she has no plans to abandon the airline.

"I've had one minor delay, no cancellations, and I have been flying every week" in the past several weeks, Campbell says. "The whole thing is getting blown out of proportion."

Mayerowitz reported from New York. Follow Koenig at http://twitter.com/AirlineWriter and Mayerowitz at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott .

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