Oct. 2, 2012 at 2:44 PM ET
When it comes to describing the state of American Airlines these days, travelers have lots of aviation-themed metaphors to choose from -- experiencing severe turbulence; in the midst of a bumpy ride; trouble in the skies.
But the bottom line is American is a carrier with mounting difficulties, some that were in place well before the recent scheduling problems and tensions with pilots.
“In terms of the large U.S. airlines, this is the one with the highest profile problems right now,” said Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline industry analyst.
“They’ve got a serious public relations bow wave to try to keep ahead of.”
For travelers, the troubling headlines about American Airlines -- the nation's third-biggest carrier -- just keep coming.
Rows of seats have come loose on planes in recent days, which the airline is investigating. Overnight, a group of engineers, tech crew chiefs and inspectors evaluated 36 Boeing 757s and plan to look at another 11. They found the root cause is a saddle clamp improperly installed on the foot of the row leg, said Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman for the airline. The clamps were used on 47 of American's 102 Boeing 757 airplanes.
"This issue does not seem to be tied to any one maintenance facility or one working group," Huguely said.
"American regrets the inconvenience that this maintenance issue may have caused customers on affected flights. Safety is -- and always will be -- American's top concern."
Mann called the seat track issues “hard to believe.”
Listen to the actual dispatch recordings from American Airlines Flight 443 (Audio courtesy: LiveATC.net):
Then, there’s the sudden rise in flight delays and cancellations that began last month after American imposed new cost-cutting terms on its pilots. The carrier has blamed the scheduling problems on a surge of maintenance requests filed by crews and by an uptick in pilots calling in sick. The pilots' union says there is no organized sickout or work slowdown.
Fliers who’ve encountered snags on American are venting on social media and in higher-profile venues.
“You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic,” wrote author Gary Shteyngart in an opinion published in The New York Times over the weekend about a recent flight from Paris to New York.
“The aircraft was indeed an interesting one. One of the overhead baggage compartments was held together with masking tape. Halfway across the Atlantic you decided to turn Flight 121 back because your altimeter wasn’t working.”
The dislodged rows of seats may be particularly disturbing to fliers, creating a perception -- whether deserved or not -- that American’s planes may not be in the best shape, industry observers said.
“Only a tiny percentage of flights have been canceled or delayed, even though the numbers are much higher than normal. But poor aircraft maintenance is less easily forgiven than flight irregularities,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.
“Air travel is still the safest way to get from one place to another, but perceptions can turn quickly if these problems persist.”
Fliers focusing on American’s recent problems may forget that the airline is also trying to restructure after filing for bankruptcy last November and facing a record fine from the government for safety and maintenance violations. In August, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it could seek up $162 million from American’s parent company, AMR.
The carrier is also dealing with a maturing fleet of planes whose average age is almost 15 years.
Older airplanes are less fuel efficient and, as energy costs have risen to the point where they are any airline’s biggest expense, they just make American’s cost problems more acute, Mann said.
Last year, the airline placed what it called the largest aircraft order in aviation history, which will reduce its average fleet age to 9.5 years by 2017.
Still, improvements five years from now likely have little meaning for passengers who are weighing their present air travel options.
“For American Airlines, time is of the essence,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. “You’re only as good as your last flight on airlines -- people still have choice, even after a lot of these mergers.”
But while the problems are scaring some travelers, others will continue with flights already booked, Hobica said. Since most people still buy based on price alone, it wouldn’t be surprising to see American have a sale or offer bonus frequent flyer miles to entice travelers, he added.
“So far this is survivable. But when you add bankruptcy, labor unrest, delays, and now safety concerns, of course this is going to affect some passengers,” Hobica said.