In the last few weeks, American Airlines has become the big punch line in the sky.
After canceling about 1,000 flights since mid-September due to pilot issues and pulling 48 Boeing 757s out of service last week because seats came loose on three different aircraft, the carrier has found itself the butt of jokes by Jay Leno and even low-cost competitor Spirit Airlines.
But after fixing the seat problems, resuming talks with the pilots union and reporting positive revenue numbers for September — albeit with a drop in traffic — American, which filed for bankruptcy in November, is hoping to finally change the conversation.
“The operational performance is improving,” CEO Tom Horton told The Associated Press on Monday. “We’ll get past this just like other airlines before us have.”
But some industry observers wonder how many customers will be able to get past the latest issues.
“Business travelers cannot afford uncertainty,” said George E. Hoffer, professor of transportation economics at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “The pilot stoppage creates uncertainty among your most seasoned travelers.”
The Allied Pilots Association has denied that there was any organized effort to disrupt operations. But American Airlines spokeswoman Martha Pantín said pilots have called in sick about 20 percent more often than a year ago; requests for maintenance checks where no problem was found increased 97 percent year-over-year in September.
Those issues resulted in a barrage of daily stories about the airline’s dismal on-time record, which was just 59 percent in September, according to FlightStats. Rival airlines Delta, US Airways, Southwest and United were all at 80 percent or higher.
Then came the reports of loose seats on three flights aboard Boeing 757 jets, including two that were heading to Miami. The airline, which said the problem was mechanical and not caused intentionally, pulled 48 planes out of service.
“The seats are just an absolute fiasco at a time that American can least afford it,” Hoffer said.
American canceled 50 flights on Thursday — half of which were in Miami — and 44 on Friday to inspect the planes and install fixes. Of about 5,184 seat locking mechanism aboard the planes, 22 had problems, the airline said.
The work was finished by Saturday, but it received enough attention to raise a fresh batch of questions about the airline.
“Having three back-to-back incidents of loose seats has not instilled confidence in passengers,” said Mary Kirby, editor in chief of the Airline Passenger Experience magazine.
She said her reporting on the unusual issue reveals problems with maintenance, repair, installation and oversight.
“This is multiple failures,” Kirby said.
Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News, said that while the public relations damage has been done, the airline’s safety isn’t being called into question.
“The bottom line is that, like the pilots slowdown, it’s not a safety issue, it’s a convenience issue,” he said. “The issue is a convenience issue especially for frequent fliers and business travelers, which are the airlines’ bread and butter.”
While Greenberg himself was delayed on two different American Airlines flights the week before last, he said he expects the situation to improve since the pilots union and airline agreed last week to resume negotiations.
“October is going to be better,” he said. “It has to be.”
Hoffer said although he expects business travelers to be the first to move their business elsewhere, passengers who are looking for deals will go wherever t hey find them.
“They will search for price and they will come back again,” he said.
When American filed for bankruptcy last year, many customers said they would continue flying the airline as long as their flights still showed up on time. But September’s numbers, released Monday, showed that traffic dropped compared to September 2011.
Passenger traffic overall was down 2.8 percent, with capacity down 3.4 percent year-over-year; domestically, where issues have been the worst, capacity was down 5.5 percent and traffic dropped 7.1 percent. The airline canceled about 400 flights in advance because of pilot issues.
Revenue per available seat mile increased 4 percent year-over-year, however, and would have been up by 4.4 percent without the operational disruptions.
Recent issues have caused some analysts to question whether the airline can emerge on its own from bankruptcy protection or if it should join forces with the smaller US Airways, which has been seeking a merger.
“Certainly things are not going well in the reorganization process right now,” James Corridore, a Standard & Poor’s equity analyst in New York, told Bloomberg News. “These are major hiccups.”
Pantín said the company plans to work with the union to “find a solution that works for the pilots and allows for a successful restructuring of the airline.”
Reynaldo Martino hopes the problems get worked out soon. A frequent flier with executive platinum status, he and his nine fellow members of the Haitian band T-Vice have had nothing but headaches on American lately.
On Sept. 28, they were supposed to fly from Miami to Santiago, but ended up in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and had to take a bus. On Friday, heading from Miami to New York, they suffered delays and lost luggage. And Monday, they were upgraded to first class, then told to move, he said, later being told that only two could return to the premium seats.
“It’s like a mess,” said Martino, who plays keyboard. He said he has gotten no response to any of his emails to customer service.
“We’ve been traveling with them for so many years,” he said. “We don’t know what to do anymore. We’re going to give them another chance and see.”
Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Maxim Group, said he believes the damage won’t be long-term — as long as problems are fixed soon.
Said Neidl: “As long as you don’t alienate them too long, you won’t lose them.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.