What goes on overnight at the Fort Worth headquarters of American Airlines? What does it take to get the world’s largest airline ready for the next day of business?
The Star-Telegram was invited to spend a night locked in American’s facilities near DFW Airport to find out.
While much of North Texas sleeps, hundreds of airline workers repair the planes, schedule the crews, plan for hazards such as weather and respond to angry calls, emails and tweets from travelers.
Here is a synopsis of what we saw visiting American from 8 p.m. Monday until 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.
‘... This storm is pretty bad’
By 8 p.m., night has fallen and traffic on nearby Texas 183 and Texas 360 hums in the distance. But otherwise, the area near American Airlines’ headquarters is quiet, like one might expect at the end of a weekday.
The company’s Integrated Operations Center (IOC), which opened in 2015, is built to withstand an F3 tornado.
Here, every aircraft owned by American is closely tracked, on computer screens and in calls and text messages between the workers here and the crews cruising around the world.
The IOC building’s glass exterior is subtly lit, masquerading all the hard (and sometimes nail-biting) work that happens on the inside.
The IOC building has 175,000 square feet of floor space, about the size of a large supermarket. There are very few exterior windows or interior walls. Instead, the IOC is a giant open space, where workers can easily find each other in an emergency — although, on this night, the mood is mostly light.
“I don’t like to see people sitting back or shooting the breeze, but, you know what, if they are, it’s a pretty good day in the IOC,” said Robert Isom, president of American Airlines Group.
During the day, about 350 people work inside the IOC in Fort Worth. Overnight, it’s a smaller staff of 80 to 90 people. Small groups of workers have varying responsibilities — including keeping track of existing flights, crew schedules, aircraft that are flying back into position after maintenance and flights that have been diverted or grounded by weather, mechanical problems or even occasionally political rifts overseas.
About 10 p.m., Mark Martinson, a flight dispatcher, is helping an American Airlines flight from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles navigate a massive thunderstorm around American Samoa.
“You don’t want to go 400 miles around isolated cells, when you can make minor adjustments,” Martinson, who lives in Temple, said. “But this storm is pretty bad.”
Also on “the bridge,” the command center in the middle of the IOC, is a station for American’s social media team. The airline now takes its social media presence (@AmericanAir on Twitter) so seriously, at least one member of its social media team must be on the bridge 24 hours a day, ready to communicate electronically with passengers, crew and others around the globe.
On this night (and actually, by now it’s early in the morning) three members of American’s social media team are monitoring Twitter and other social media for complaints from customers. They also watch for threats of bombs or other violence against the airline or its crews.
Annette Hernandez, senior manager of social media services, shows IOC visitors examples of previous tweets her group has responded to. Some tweets reflect frustration with delayed flights.
“Add another thanks to @AmericanAir for putting me up in a lovely #Econolodge,” one customer wrote on Twitter. “Haven’t seen a shower like that since ‘Psycho.’ ”
But others are complimentary of the people they met during a trip on American.
Most of the airline’s social media interactions are simple responses to questions and complaints about delayed flights, lost luggage and momentary human conflicts. The airlines’ social media team logs about 4,500 online interactions per day — most of them on Twitter.
“We try to respond to all of them,” she said, adding that many customers now prefer to communicate with American on Twitter, rather than calling customer service by phone. “Now they just see this as another form of customer service.”
Training for worst-case scenarios
It’s after 2 a.m., but Capt. John Dudley couldn’t be more cheerful as he greets visitors to American Airlines Flight Academy.
This nondescript building on the east side of Texas 360 just south of DFW Airport is home to 32 full flight simulators, each of which is capable of providing a near-perfect virtual experience of flying the jets in American’s fleet — and each costing $12 million or more to build.
There are simulators for MD-80s, Boeing 777s, Embraer ERJ-145s and many other aircraft — and, even at this late hour, at least five or six of the life-size aircraft simulators are in use. Dudley escorts his crowd to a simulator for the Airbus 350, which happens to be a model that American recently decided not to purchase for its fleet. (The A350 simulator could eventually be sold to another airline, but for now American can let visiting pilots and trainees use it for a fee.)
Dudley proudly tells visitors of the capabilities of the Airbus planes, which feature many automated controls even when the aircraft is being manually flown. These days, he said, the most common emergencies involve computer glitches in the sophisticated controls, rather than some sort of mechanical malfunction, which makes training even more of a challenge than a generation ago.
“Our goal is not to train you for every one-off scenario, but to train you to deal with something you have never seen before,” Dudley said as he showed a visitor (an aviation novice) how to land an A350 at DFW Airport in a simulator.
About six miles northeast of the flight academy is the DFW airfield. It’s 4 a.m, and about 100 American Airlines employees are working in and around the four adjacent maintenance hangars on the airfield’s west side.
On a typical night, about 35 airplanes are parked at one of the four hangars, most waiting for routine maintenance before being put back into service when the sun comes up.
On a busier night, the crews can handle up to 145 planes at the hangars, said Badih Delati, aircraft maintenance manager. Crew members were ear plugs as they work on the wide-body airplanes in hangar 4, or the narrow-body planes in hangar 3.
“Our rush hour is at 5 a.m, and we want to have every one of these aircraft in service,” he said.
When a plane is ready to go back into service, a crew member will either fire up the engines and drive the plane along the DFW taxiways to its departure gate for the morning — or use a Goldhofer tractor to tug the plane over to its gate, to save fuel.
Some of the wide-body aircraft can burn up to $1,000 worth of fuel just rolling from the hangar to the departure gate under their own power, so the Goldhofer tractors save American a lot of money, he said.
As the morning sun cracks through the eastern horizon, several dozen workers at American Airlines’ “virtual tower” inside DFW Terminal A begin their routine of getting all the morning flights off the ground on time.
This American Airlines crew used to work in the air traffic control tower near Terminal A, but moved to a more remote location in the bowels of Terminal A — an area not open to the public. In the old days, the workers could see about a third of the DFW airfield from their 10-story perch. But today, in the “virtual tower,” also known as the DFW Control Center, they have a view of 100 percent of the airfield, thanks to hundreds of security cameras placed through DFW’s terminal areas.
They also have about 10 times as much floor space in the new DFW Control Center, which helps the workers stay organized when they are fighting challenges such as weather to get the fleet off the ground.
Between about 5 and 7 a.m, if all these American Airlines workers can collectively get these planes in the sky within 15 minutes of their scheduled departure, that’s usually a sign it’s going to be a good day.