When the MAX Was Grounded, American’s Scheduling Team Had a Big Problem to Solve

On March 13, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) relented and made the decision to ground all 737 MAX aircraft flying in the US. As the last country to do so, this effectively meant the MAX was grounded worldwide as of that day. Here we are more than one month later and the airplane is still not flying. In fact, American just extended its cancellations over this past weekend through August 19.

For the airlines that operate the MAX, the grounding presented an enormous problem. How could they adjust their schedules to have the least impact on the operation? I had multiple interviews with American to get a full understanding of how the airline sprung into action.

Original image via American Airlines

At the time, American was operating 24 MAX aircraft on 22 lines of flying, almost all of them going in and out of the Miami hub by design. When the grounding went into effect, the airline obviously had no choice but to cancel flights where they stood, but since those airplanes were concentrated in Miami, continuing to cancel all flights scheduled on the MAX for any lengthy period of time was a non-starter. For example, American had two daily flights to Quito, both on the MAX. It couldn’t just abandon that market. And more than half of the flights between LaGuardia and Miami were on the MAX. Again, canceling those outright wasn’t an option.

This was a squishy situation. Remember, when the airplane was grounded, it wasn’t clear how long it would remain on the ground. American initially set up a schedule that was MAX-free through April 24. Two weekends ago, it extended that to go through June 5. And now, this weekend it extended through August 19.

During this time period, American was supposed to be taking delivery of more MAX aircraft, and it had already put them in the schedule. So during late April and through May, it actually had 26 lines of flying scheduled, not the 22 that were flying at the time of the grounding. It only got worse during the summer period as more airplanes were scheduled to be delivered.

Dave Scott, American’s Managing Director of Flight Scheduling, was immediately focused on looking for aircraft time that was available throughout the system as slack. Could they cover some of the MAX flying with other airplanes without having to disrupt the operation? They could, to a limited extent. But April had more slack than May, and of course, May had more than the busy summer season.

During May, American had two airplanes that weren’t assigned to the schedule. They were immediately pushed into service to fly some of the flights. American also had an aggressive schedule putting airplanes into maintenance to get the new fast wifi installed. It suspended some of those lines to keep airplanes flying instead. It also found it had some extra time on the 757. Remember Quito? American took that extra time along with a maintenance spare it had at JFK to fly that flight. Some of this was a calculated risk. It did reduce the buffer American had to recover from operational issues, but it was more important for American to keep as much flying as it could to avoid disrupting customer plans, especially close in.

In the end, Dave explained that American was able to cover around 2.5 lines of flying out of the 26 through June 5. It wasn’t going to save everyone, but it would at least plug the most important holes and keep some flights operating. There was less slack to play with during the summer.

Once that had been worked out, the problem was turned over to Jason Reisinger’s team. Jason is the Managing Director of Network and Schedule Planning, and they were left trying to figure out how to run a schedule with a couple dozen airplanes immediately out of service. It was determined that they needed to cancel about 85 flights per day through June 5, but that grew to 115 during the summer.

This could have been done hastily, but Jason’s team poured hours and hours of work into trying to optimize the schedule. They didn’t look at only MAX-operated flights. American looked throughout the network to figure out what it could cancel on non-MAX airplanes and then use those airplanes to cover MAX flying. The goal was to cancel as many long flights as possible where reaccommodation options were easy. If they could cancel one long flight instead of two shorter ones, that would impact fewer customers.

The perfect example of a market that fit the bill was, as Jason explained, Dallas/Ft Worth to Hartford. There were two 737-800 nonstops per day in that market, and American opted to cancel one of them. At nearly 1,500 miles, it was a fairly long stage length. The airplane left DFW at 12:48pm and didn’t get back until 9pm that night. Further, that route overflies four other American hubs — Chicago, Charlotte, DC, and Philly — that could absorb reaccommodated passengers. By canceling one of those flights, American could free up a lot of aircraft time and have a minimal impact on customers.

This wasn’t just about geography, however. American also examined bookings and tried to target flights that were more lightly booked with fewer people. And when the time came to make hard decisions, it took profitability into account as well. Some exceptions were made for markets considered strategically important, but for the most part, the airline put out a schedule that was thoughtful and had the least impact on travelers. But this wasn’t just about the schedule. This required working with all parts of the company to push it out properly.

The last two times, American has had a highly-coordinated effort. Even though the schedule change went into effect over weekends, flights started to be blocked from selling a few days before as they started finalizing. The flights were just “zeroed out” so that no seats were shown available for sale.

Then on Sunday morning, there were emails sent directly to impacted customers. Travel agents received queue messages with changes along with a comprehensive policy on rebooking options. American’s automated rebooking tool kicked in and had over 99 percent of the people affected rebooked within 24 hours.

Now the question is… how many more times will American have to do this? Though they wouldn’t comment on future plans, they did admit to looking through the next couple of schedules to come up with contingency plans in case the cancellations need to be extended further.

While the process is now set for how to handle this, future changes are going to be harder. Though there is more slack past the summer peak, there is also the expectation of having more 737 MAXs in the fleet. There is more flying to be covered every week that passes.

So far, American has avoided looking at options like acquiring older aircraft or extending retirement dates of existing airplanes. It hopes that this grounding won’t go long enough for that to be an issue. But I imagine if things continue to drag on, the unthinkable may have to become possible.

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