People will always complain about flying, but one airline appears to have surpassed the rest in sheer high-profile annoyance. Thanks to epic delays, rows of seats coming undone, and a scathing op-ed from a literary star in The New York Times, American Airlines—slogan: "We Know Why You Fly"—may have sealed the title of the country's least liked airline. Let's walk through the recent history of the airline's publicity nightmares.
Late November/December 2011: Bankruptcy. If you're looking for the root of all evil, it's here. Last year American Airlines filed for bankruptcy, which was no surprise since other American airlines that aren't American (har har)—like United and Delta—have in the past also filed for Chapter 11. But American's situation was a bit different in that the bankruptcy filing allowed them to change up their contracts with unions (pilots included). This would come back to haunt the airline on September 5.
December 2011: Alec Baldwin Throws a Temper Tantrum. Yes, that was an American Airlines flight.
September 4, 2012: Remember Those Contracts? We Don't. Back in December when American filed for Chapter 11, they managed to reach new deals with most of their unions (flight attendants, maintenance workers, etc.), except for one very important group: the pilots. Last month, a judge finally threw out American's standing pilot unions contract. "The decision by Judge Sean H. Lane will now let the Fort Worth-Texas airline lower its pilot payroll," reported the AP at the time. "The judge rejected the union's contention that American is doing much better financially than when it entered bankruptcy protection and didn't need to void the contract." Of course this did not make pilots or their union very happy.
All of September: Delays. "Since Sept. 16, the carrier has canceled 546 flights and experienced 7,137 delays, with only 49 percent of its flights arriving on time," reported the Chicago Tribune's Gregory Karp on September 24. "Flight cancellations at American are running between 3 percent and 5 percent a day in an industry where a 1 percent rate is considered a very bad day," reported The Wall Street Journal's Susan Carey a day after. So what gives? Well, the airline blamed the pilots (who were miffed for the contract SNAFU) for sabotaging the airline—they alleged the pilots were taking sick days and writing up unnecessary maintenance requests. But passengers don't really care whose fault it is if they are being delayed (they might even back the union if given the chance), which leads us to:
September 29, 2012: An Op-Ed that United them All. In his essay for The New York Times, Gary Shteyngart never reveals what day his flight from Paris to New York took place. But he does report that what's normally a seven-hour flight, thanks to American, took more than 30 hours to complete (it'd be safe to bet that he took his flight during September's terribad delay month). "You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment," wrote Shteyngart. "Halfway across the Atlantic you decided to turn Flight 121 back because your altimeter wasn’t working. Some of us were worried for our safety, but your employees mostly shrugged as if to say, Ah, there goes that altimeter again," he added, giving readers a debate of which is worse: janky machinery on a metal box designed to take you 35,000 feet into the air or the employees who don't care about said machinery? He also talked about those unions:
One passenger told us this was all part of the union’s strategy to destroy the airline. All I know is that with each encounter, I steadily began to feel that your employees were prisoners just like us, armed only with their little walkie-talkies from which issued tinny instructions, lost communiqués from some distant Oz. ...
An American diplomat based in Moscow tells me he prefers flying Aeroflot to Delta. But Delta is a futuristic paradise of working altimeters and braking brakes when compared with you, dear American Airlines. So what can you do? Empires rise and empires fall. A metaphor you may need to consider closely.
October 1, 2012: Slate's Domestic Horror Story. Inspired by Shteyngart's column, Slate's Matthew Ygelsias came forward with one of his own: "Friends Don't Let Friends Fly American Airlines." His delayed-ridden trip from Tulsa to Dallas to Baltimore which then became a Dallas to D.C. flight hit on that anxiety we all feel about not making a connecting flight and the actual toll on humans from all of these delays. There's also more insight about those unions and those pilots: "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," Yglesias reminded us.
October 1, 2012: And Then, the
Wheels Seats Came Off. Not only has American faced numerous delays and been forced to scrub a lot of flights from its docket in the last month, it now has to face the reality of being the airline that now has to explain why a row of seats came unbolted and "slid around like a carnival ride" as reported by The New York Post's Bill Sanderson and Chuck Bennett. "With turbulence, you have to be cautious. That’s why everyone has to stow everything under the seat to prevent loose objects from flying around the cabin—and you’ve got a whole row of seats unbolted," a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association told The Post. "It’s a head-scratcher, the first time I’ve heard of it in 24 years with American."
At the risk of angering Louis C.K. apostles, we want to make clear that this is more than a flight being delayed once or twice, nor is it about the lack of free Wi-Fi 35,000 feet in the air. We love airlines and the wonderment of air travel and being able to get from one side of the country to another to go see our loved ones or take a break from people we don't love in just hours. It's just that, for now, we won't be using American to do that.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.