One Strange Reason For American’s Operational Issues On Hong Kong Flights?

American now flies from both Dallas and Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Both flights are operated by American’s beautiful 777-300ERs, featuring first class and reverse herringbone seats in business class. The routes even have American’s “premium” service in first & business class, similar to what they offer to Australia (this means you get pajamas and mattress pads in business class).

However, both of these flights have been plagued by a surprising number of delays. It seems a bit puzzling thatĀ routes operated by brand new 777s would have so many issues.

American-First-Class - 1

For those of you not familiar with American’s operational issues on their Hong Kong flights, FlightStats gives both AA125 (Dallas to Hong Kong) and AA193 (Los Angeles to Hong Kong) zero out of five stars for their on-time performance:

AA-HKG-Delay-1 AA-HKG-Delay-2

Now, I don’t necessarily put too much weight on those FlightStats ratings, but I think we can all agree that American’s on-time performance in the markets isn’t great. šŸ˜‰

Ultimately there are a lot of things that can impact on-time performance for ultra longhaul flights, and it goes beyond mechanical issues. Perhaps the most obvious cause is that crews are only contractually allowed to work for a certain amount of time, so if there’s any sort of substantial delay, it’s possible that the crew will time out, meaning that the airlineĀ needs to find a replacement crew. Finding four replacement pilots isn’tĀ something that happens instantly, even when you have pilots on reserve.

So while this wouldn’t be an issue on a two hour flight, a delay up front can cause big issues on a 17 hour flight.

But it seems like there’s another thing that may be causing some issues for American’s performance to Hong Kong. Per JonNYC, apparently one major cause of American’s operational issues on theirĀ Hong Kong flights was that many of their pilots didn’t have visas for China.

This might sound silly, but airlines always need to plan for potential diversions, and one of the closest diversion points from Hong Kong would be Shenzhen, Guangzhou, etc. If they needed to divert there, the flight would likely needĀ to be canceled, given that the pilots are likely to have “timed out” at that point. But the pilots also couldn’t actually stay there, since they don’t have visas.

In other words, this meant American had to plan for diversions to airports outside of mainland China, which sometimes meant loading more fuel, and in some cases meant offloading some cargo, given how “heavy” the flight goes out. All of this addsĀ to delays, and in some casesĀ got the flight into a situation where the pilots timed out before the flightĀ could even leave.

I believe this issue has since been resolved, though it’s sort of crazy to think about how much goes into the operations of a flight. Or in this instance, it makes you realize how many issues could have been avoided if all the pilots consistently just had Chinese visas (which I believe they have now).

Like I said, there are lots of things that can cause operational challenges on ultra longhaul flights, though this has to be one of the more interesting ones…

Comments

  1. Wow, I never knew you needed a separate visa for China. I just figured the network that’s “everywhere you want to be” would work on card readers in China. No wonder they have issues if they have to apply for a new Chinese credit card!

    Do all the issuers have this dual-network issue or could I use my American mastercard in China?

  2. Out of 140,000 miles flown last year, the only delay to remember was our AA125 to HKG in Feb2016. It was 12 hour delayed, so we opted to fly on Cathay, only to lose our luggage in the process. Luggage finally returned on day 6 of our 10 day vacation in Phuket. Some lessons learned as a result.

  3. Hi Ben,

    A genuine and not loaded question(s)

    How long do you feel you can live in the manner you do, i.e. with no fixed abode it would seem? Do you have any plans to ‘settle down’ or a career path of choice long term?

  4. Have you seen a beautiful 777-300? They are already getting run down and trashy. I got off the DFW-HKG flight and got on an old Cathay 777-200 that was clean as could be. American doesn’t take care of their planes whatsoever

  5. Since Guangzhou offers a 72-hour transit visa valid for all of Guangdong province and Shenzhen has a 5-day visa on arrival, why would this be a problem?

    More generally, are pilots required to have a visa for any potential diversion airport along their route? Surely there are visa exceptions for air crew in these circumstances.

  6. @ Arcanum — Those are tourist visas, so I imagine the rules for visas are different if you’re a pilot, which I suspect is the problem.

  7. I can understand someone that lives in DFW to fly AA from HKG. To LAX? Unless the airfare is way cheaper on AA I would never chose them over CX.

  8. China is a strange country and doesn’t always go by the rules, it all depends on the immigration officers’s mood, the weather, the time when Trump was making some sort of speech. And yes, it all depends on who ever is really in charge, you never know, all those political struggle between comrades.

  9. There are non-chinese airports close to HK such as Taipei, Kaohsiung, Manila (slightly further away but still within the rabge. many CX flights use Manila as diversion airport)

  10. Luckily, when I flew DFW – HKG on AA last june the flight was on time, the same happened on the way back.

  11. This is bizarre. Do pilots (and, presumably, other crewmembers) really need a visa for *every country they fly over*? Is that a general rule? Or does it apply just to China? Or just to flights over China that begin/end in Hong Kong?

  12. Given that AA already has flights to PEK and PVG, why aren’t AA already getting their long haul pilots Chinese visas?

  13. Why do the pilots need a visa for possible diversion points in the PRC, but the passengers don’t then? Many people don’t need a visa for HK, but would need one for the PRC.

  14. why not just divert to MFM Macau? i would think that’s the closest airport w/o visa restrictions (for most). TPE is the next best thing… (it’ll be good to see AA back in TPE šŸ˜‰ )

  15. I was just on 192 from HKG to LAX. Not only did we leave on time, but we arrived 45 minutes ahead of schedule.

    My flight from DFW to ICN not too long ago was apparently loaded to the brim. They couldn’t give standbys seats apparently because they were that packed full of cargo.

  16. My experience with flying to HKG – is that delays have been due to mechanical as announced by the pilot. Maybe a 1.5 hours delay while on board.

    Also I had a broken video system in J on a flight from LHR.

    AA cancelled # 100 from JFK to LHR on Jan 12th. No reason given. But I suspect they swapped with another aircraft – maybe to GRU, or had mechanical.

  17. This is stupid. Buy your pilots who fly to china (I can’t imagine they fly just to HKG) the 10 year visa. Issue resolved. I was recently on the LAX-HKG flight in which it was delayed because we had a full load a fuel and taxied to the end of the runway where we had a tail wind. So, we had to turn around and go back to the other way and take off into the wind. How do you screw that up? That’s just poor planning and stupidity. And yes, my business class seat area looked like crap…clean your planes AA.

  18. We were flying LAX to HKG on December 21st (1AM) connecting to flight to Bali, had boarded in first. Something was amiss, as there were a pile of blankets left in the galley and not being attended to, and neither were the FAs interacting with passengers (serving champagne, introducing themselves, etc.) FA came up to us and told us to deplane promptly because the plane wasn’t going to fly! They did not have enough crew to fly, as some were timed out. Flight was delayed until 2pm! After 4 hours of dealing with Exec Plat desk during the middle of the night, we were able to get onto Cathay 11am flight and reschedule entire trip (and sleep a bit in the lounge). Worked out in the end, but this is an issue that should not come up. They need to fix!

  19. You don’t need a visa as a crewmember to Hong Kong. It’s based off legalities that are NOT contractual; rather, as per FAA Regulations. This story is only halfway correct. I’ve been staffed on too many “recrews” to count on this exact flight and I know my contract and FARs too the ‘T’. Both Shanghai and Hong Kong barely have wiggle room regarding FAA staffing requirements and duty day maximums. Nobody can expect a human being to be on duty and adequately fly a 400 paasenger airplane for more than 20 hours safely. Regardless if you get a “nap.”

  20. This is definitely an interesting wrinkle, but likely just one of several factors. Couple of other items to consider:

    – the planes fly in a “W” pattern (DFW-HKG-LAX-HKG-DFW) to avoid excessive ground time between flights.
    – every longhaul fleet type seems to have a rash of maintenance problems, even the new planes. Some serious examination and reform on the maintenance side is obviously needed.

    AA’s longhaul reliability has really gone off a cliff the last year or so, and these “flagship” HKG flights are among the worst offenders – delays of 8, 10, 15 hours are not uncommon at all. I myself had a 14-hour delay last winter on LAX-NRT. Even the LAX-Auckland flight, on a nice new Dreamliner, is often delayed for hours on end.

    AA’s most premium routes already have to contend with some of the most bitter, disinterested, embarrassingly bad cabin crews in the sky. The least they could do is get the flights out on time.

  21. To the poster who mentioned the 5 day visa in shenzhen, I believe that’s only at specific ports, or maybe only the Lo Wu birder (where the train from Hung Hom in HK goes)

  22. Remember that MFM, SZX and CAN are all located fairly close to HKG (within 50-60 miles) so in potential diversion scenarios like severe weather they don’t help. Also, routing can take a significant polar direction, requiring long overflight of Russia and China. Taipei and Manila aren’t a catch-all solution to diversion issues

  23. I flew DFW-HKG last year, there was a typhoon at HKG, we were flying over China about 4 hrs from landing at HKG, we made a sharp left turn and headed east for 1 hr and landed at ICN and refueled, waited about an hour, then got clearance to enter the pattern for HKG. I have a screen shot of the monitor if you want to see the diversion. The rumor was because most people on the plane did not have Chinese visas so we could not land below us, which was China.

  24. I heard there is an issue with AA crews who are not used to long haul flights as most AA flights are less than 15 hours. So a lot of attendants call in sick or refuse to fly this route. It seems like AA has been hiring CX attendants, which may improve on-time performance eventually.

  25. @Louis
    When I arrive at a U.S. airport, U.S. customs officers often call me over for inspection (and ransacked my luggage) when I arrived alone, but tend to pass me over when I was traveling my two pre-school kids.

    Question: Is USA “a strange country and doesnā€™t always go by the rules, it all depends on the custom officersā€™s mood, the weather, the time when Trump was making some sort of speech. And yes, it all depends on who ever is really in charge, you never know, all those political struggle between comrades.”?

    Or is the problem simply you: you have a bias view against China?

  26. Look up UA 869 and DL39… They are in the same boat as far on time performance goes. Its not just an AA problem. I use UA and DL to HKG a lot because AA layover at LAX is too long.

  27. I was unfortunate enough to have issues twice out of all three DFW-HKG experiences in the past year that I’ve never really thought they would hit me before. First was last August (still 137), flight was on time and went smoothly until they reached DFW and had a rejected landing due to flash thunder and lack of visibility, diverted to Austin, waited, and flew back. Set me back a couple of hours and missed my connection, but totally understandable. Second time was last December, 125 bound for HKG. Unspecified mechanical problem cited for some 7 hour delay which also directly affected flight 192 back to LAX.

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