See inside American Airlines' massive flight operations center, where it dispatches 6,000 flights every day

See inside American Airlines' massive flight operations center, where it dispatches 6,000 flights every day
  • American Airlines runs its giant aircraft operation from a tornado-withstanding facility in Texas.

  • The Integrated Operations Center houses over 20 teams and supports nearly 6,000 daily flights.

  • The IOC relies on a special automation software called "HEAT" to better manage flight disruptions.

American Airlines' pilots, flight attendants, and airport staff are the face of nearly 6,000 flights operated by the carrier around the world each day.

However, a team of nearly 1,700 other employees who work behind the scenes in a giant operational center hidden from the public is just as essential to plane movement.

American invited Business Insider to tour its Integrated Operations Center, or IOC, at its headquarters in Dallas/Fort Worth. For privacy reasons, the company requested photos of certain screens, and employees' faces be blurred.

The American Airlines IOC building in Texas.
Groat said the IOC, which employs some 1,700 employees, can withstand an EF3-strength tornado.Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Mark Groat, American's IOC system customer service manager who led the mid-May tour, described the 149,000-square-foot, tornado-resistant IOC as the "nerve center" of the airline.

It runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The complex houses over 20 teams responsible for dispatching planes, monitoring weather, organizing maintenance and cargo, and preventing misconnects, among myriad other duties.

The IOC doesn't look like your typical cubicle office

American's open-space IOC is strategically set up to enable communication and collaboration between the teams, Groat said.

For example, the lights are dimmed to reduce strain when looking at screens all day, and the phones use a color light system above each seat to indicate if that person is on a call.

Inside the AA IOC with people sitting at screens.
These employees have a red-green system. Groat said crew schedulers have a different phone system that uses blue and white lights.Taylor Rains/Business Insider

"A red light means you're on the phone, and a green light means your phone is ringing," Groat said, noting the maintenance team, for example, has a line to airport hangars. "So, you can kind of gauge just looking over the floor what kind of day we're having."

He noted on busy days when everyone is talking and walking around, white noise is pumped into the IOC to keep the room quiet.

American uses automation to help manage irregular operations

American's delay and cancellation rate isn't the best in the US, but the carrier climbed to third place in 2023, according to the aviation data provider Cirium. It lost to Delta Air Lines and narrowly edged out United Airlines.

All of these disruptions pass through the heart of the IOC in a section called the "bridge." This is where the IOC director oversees and guides the thousands of daily flights.

American teammembers working on the "bridge"
IOC employees working on the "bridge" during BI's tour.Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Alongside the director are managers who work with American's hubs, like Dallas/Fort Worth, Miami, and Charlotte, to build plans for "irregular operations" that will impact the fewest customers possible. They're looking at things like staffing, resources, and gate constraints, Goat said.

While much of this analysis is done manually, Goat said American launched a new automation tool last year known as the "Hub Efficiency Analytics Tool," or HEAT, to help dispatchers, coordinators, and other employees make more proactive decisions.

It analyzes things like when a crew member exceeds their regulated duty period, which flights have the greatest number of connecting customers, how many top-tier loyalty customers are flying, and whether impacted flights are domestic or international — domestic being easier to accommodate.

A giant television near the center of the IOC displays the diversion airports used at that time, with the colors indicating how close to capacity each is.
A giant television near the center of the IOC displays the diversion airports used at that time, with the colors indicating how close to capacity each is.Taylor Rains/Business Insider

"Instead of separate units canceling flights one by one and customers being rebooked repeatedly, HEAT allows us to update the system with all the delays and cancellations at one time," Groat said.

"This maintains the integrity of connecting bags, and it means we aren't arbitrarily rerouting somebody who could have ultimately made their connection."

On the day of my visit, smoke from a wildfire in the Bahamas was impacting operations at Nassau International Airport. IOC employees were walking desk-to-desk discussing options, while others were analyzing how flights would be impacted — which is where HEAT could come into play.

"We'll most likely divert en route planes to Miami to wait out the event," Groat said. "If the delay times get longer and crew time becomes an issue, we'll have to evaluate options like canceling some flights or consolidating two into one so we can get our resources back into the system and where they need to be."

Crew scheduling and dispatch are among the biggest teams

Planes can't go anywhere without at least two pilots and at least one flight attendant per 50 seats. Crew scheduling is responsible for keeping some 14,000 crew on track every day.

There are three different areas within the crew scheduling department, Groat said. One handles day-to-day crewing, a second is responsible for tracking disruptions and calling in reserves, and a third helps make decisions regarding delays and cancellations.

An American Airlines flight attendant serving passengers on a 2018 flight.
Crew schedulers track around 14,000 crewmembers daily. Groat said HEAT has prevented thousands of flight delays and cancellations since its launch. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The job relies on computer systems and knowledge of specific regulations regarding fatigue and duty time, but American also provides automation tools like HEAT to help schedulers quickly and accurately staff flights.

He noted that there are times when things get so displaced that not every flight can be accommodated, so the crew coordinators identify "critical" flights that need to be prioritized for operational needs.

For example, if a key plane doesn't make it to its next airport and no replacement can get there either, a chain of disruption could occur.

Beyond crew scheduling, nearly half of the IOC floor is dedicated to teams that oversee specific fleets, including sections for the Boeing 737 family, the Airbus A320 family, and widebody jets.

These teams consist of flight dispatchers, planners who work with maintenance, and crew coordinators. There are also customer service managers who are "the voice of the passenger" and try to proactively find solutions during disruptions.

Passengers check in for an American Airlines flights at O'Hare International Airport on October 11, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.
Groat said the fleet-specific teams are broken down by hub, with about 1 million flights dispatched annually from the IOC.Scott Olson/Getty Images

Groat also pointed to a relatively new but highly specialized team of irregular operations leads who examine long-term strategies to prevent hourslong delays from impacting flights down the line.

For example, the team may consider rerouting specific planes over water to avoid severe weather in Florida or analyze how de-icing delays in Chicago could impact departures, he said.

"Every flight that we can route around a disruptor is another slot we keep flying," he said.

Smaller workgroups are still essential to the operation

While crew scheduling and dispatchers make up the IOC's bigger work groups, smaller teams like cargo and maintenance coordinators, load planners, air traffic liaisons, regional dispatchers, and unaccompanied minor organizers also have roles to fill.

"When disruption happens, we need to know what cargo is on the airplane that we need to care for, like perishable items, live animals, or pharmaceuticals," Groat said. "Load planners ensure the aircraft are within the right weight and balance."

American Airlines Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet aircraft in the sky.
American has three wholly-owned subsidiaries: Envoy Air, Piedmont Airlines, and PSA Airlines. Contract carriers like Republic Airways and Air Wisconsin also fly on behalf of American.Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Regional dispatchers coordinate American's subsidiary and contract flying and help find replacement planes when the regional side is disrupted. Groups like schools and sports teams are especially harder to re-accommodate

A command center is set up for emergency events

The command center is a giant, glass-enclosed room that is designated for incidents and accidents. Groat said it's only been put to use twice since moving into the IOC building in 2015.

He said the first use was after the bomb attack at Brussels Airport in 2016, which didn't impact American directly, but the airline still used the command center as a point of contact to help find where its customers and team members were.

A model aircraft of an American 787.
The command center is located in the glassed room behind the model aircraft.Taylor Rains/Business Insider

Groat said the second event was the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft after two crashes killed 346 people in 2018 and 2019.

"For the Max, we had 24 planes taken out of the system very quickly, and all of them were in Miami," he said. "We needed the means to find replacement aircraft from other parts of the system to restore the schedule there."

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