The captain is at the controls, the tray tables are stowed, and nobody is smoking in the lavatories. We’ll be taking off shortly.
But wait, what about the coffee machines — are the coffee machines ready for departure?
Airlines blame flight delays on many things — missing paperwork, storms in faraway states, planes stacked up at La Guardia — but one explanation in particular trips up some travelers. It’s the broken coffee maker in the airplane galley. “Not sure why an @AmericanAir flight has to go back to the gate because of a freakin coffee maker...... that baffles me,” wrote Ryan Fahey on Twitter in February.
The miracle of human flight with onboard snacks is one of humanity’s great achievements. How is it, then, that a balky coffeepot can bring a jumbo jet to a dead halt?
It turns out to be a surprisingly complex problem to fix. An “inordinate amount of coffee maker problems” are causing short flight delays, the chief of operations for American Airlines, Robert Isom, said recently in a podcast for company employees. “If we can’t find a fix, we ought to just replace all the coffee makers.”
In the competitive airline industry, even small flight delays matter. They can cascade across the nation, affecting “hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers,” Mr. Isom said in an interview. It’s not just about the coffee, he said, it’s “the most financially sound way to run an airline.”
Mr. Isom came to American in its 2013 merger with US Airways, where he helped to achieve one of the industry’s best on-time departure records, which means taking off within 15 minutes of the scheduled time. American could use help on that score. At 83 percent for the first three months of the year, American ranked between two of its main rivals, Delta Air Lines (86 percent) and United Airlines (81 percent), according to the Department of Transportation.
Mr. Isom declined to say precisely how many of American’s delays are caused by broken coffee makers. The Department of Transportation, which tracks delays, said it couldn’t provide that level of detail.
In his quest to get American’s planes off the ground on time, Mr. Isom is looking not only at coffee makers but also at other seemingly mundane delay-causing problems, such as spills on seats. Spills on cloth upholstery can delay a flight because the crew must remove the seat cushion and replace it with a dry one. Economy travelers can expect to see more “synthetic leather” seat covers, which have superior wipeability.
Onboard coffee machines are trickier. They cost anywhere from $7,000 to $20,000 apiece. And they are electrical, so if one isn’t working, the ground crew needs to make sure there’s not a problem with the circuitry that could cause a fire or other hazard.
“You can’t just put Mr. Coffee in an airline,” said Jeff Lowe, president of Aviation Fabricators, a certified airplane repair station in Clinton, Mo. “You have to do all kinds of engineering and analysis and provide test results to the F.A.A. to get approval.”
The Federal Aviation Administration requires coffee makers to have safety features like circuit breakers and wiring insulation to protect against onboard fires. So when a coffee machine misbehaves, maintenance crews must inspect it to ensure there is no risk.
Other special features include latches to ensure that the coffeepot does not shake loose during turbulence. These elaborately engineered details mean there is more that can go wrong.