Mike McKanna, American Airlines' operations manager at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, said that if a critical flight departs late, it can have a ripple effect throughout the system, making it hard to catch up.
American planes take their spots at gates around D/FW's Terminal C. The airline is looking to improve its on-time record.
As the early-morning American Airlines flight to El Paso prepares to depart, employees of the world's largest airline pay special attention to a host of details.
Gate agents make sure passengers board quickly, baggage handlers load the plane as fast as possible, and flight attendants get travelers seated and strapped in. Employees at the gate, on the ramp, and in the cabin keep in constant communication, ready to jump in at a hint of delay.
These are certainly everyday tasks for ground workers and flight crews, but the goal for this aircraft is to depart five minutes early. That's because American has designated it a "critical flight," one of about 35 at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport that the airline has identified for special attention when it comes to leaving on time or ahead of schedule.
"If a flight like this one departs late, it has a ripple effect that can affect flights all over our system," said Mike McKanna, American's operations manager at D/FW. "If we start out behind schedule here, it's very, very difficult to catch up."
American's increased focus on these critical flights -- most departing early in the morning -- is a reflection of the Fort Worth-based airline's drive to improve its on-time record.
In recent months, American's on-time ranking, as determined by the Transportation Department, has been in the middle of the pack, or even near the bottom. In January, for example, the most recent month available, American ranked 13th out of 19 airlines listed, with 69 percent of flights arriving on time. In December, American ranked 10th out of 19 airlines.
"Improving on-time performance is very important right now," McKanna said. "It makes a real difference for our customers."
The focus on critical flights was first envisioned in 2002 but has kicked into high gear recently. It entails a coordinated effort among several different employee groups, including gate agents, mechanics, baggage handlers, flight attendants and pilots, as well as some outside contractors such as LSG Sky Chefs, which supplies the airline's food service.
The ultimate goal is to pull the aircraft away from the gate, ready to take off, about five minutes ahead of schedule.
American has implemented the effort at all of its hubs. As the airline's largest hub, critical flights at D/FW have the greatest potential to improve -- or worsen -- the airline's on-time record.
"We look at it every day as if we're trying to pitch a perfect game," said Kim Berg, an operations planner for American at D/FW. "You try very hard to get to 100 percent."
The effort has seen some recent success. In February, more than 88 percent of critical flights from D/FW left on time, McKanna said -- a record for the airline. Previously, the percentage of on-time departures for those flights had been in the low 70s.
"I think we're starting to do reasonably well," McKanna said. "But we still want to push those numbers even higher."
It remains to be seen whether those numbers will translate into a higher overall ranking. McKanna hopes it will.
"We compete so closely on fares these days that passengers are looking to other things when they make their decision," he said. "If they trust you to be on time, that can win you a lot of customers."