A Closer Look at January Flight Delays, Lost Bags, and Complaints

Considering how much discussion we’ve had here on the blog about delays lately, I thought it might be a good time to dig in and review the latest Air Travel Consumer Report. This one covers January travel and it really wasn’t awful, surprisingly. January weather was bad, but February weather was awful. I’m not looking forward to seeing that one. Let’s get started.

On Time Performance
As usual, Hawaiian was the best, though it couldn’t crack 90 percent on time. It helps to do most of your flying around the mostly weather-free islands, so I always ignore their results. Alaska was next with 85.8 percent on time, probably showing that the Pacific Northwest has had a relatively mild winter this year. Then comes United with 83.7 percent, a great showing. But wait, we don’t know that for sure. Nearly half United’s flights are actually operated by another airline as United Express. (This doesn’t even count codesharing with alliance partners.) But those results all fall under that operating airline.

So SkyWest, which does a fair bit of flying for United, posted only a 74.6 percent rating, but that won’t show up in United’s numbers. That’s why I find these numbers hard to use and hard to trust. So how can we break these down and get more meaningful info? Well we can’t do it precisely, but we can start to approximate. Take a look at SkyWest again. They do most of their flying for either United or Delta and we don’t know how they did for each. How can we figure that out? They do break it down by arrival airport, so we can dig in that way.

In Denver, SkyWest had 78.4 percent of flights arrive on time (United had 88.6 percent). At LAX it was 79.6 percent (87.2 percent for United) and in Chicago it was 69.5 percent (84.2 percent for United). In San Francisco, SkyWest had a dreadful 53.2 percent while United had 76.9 percent. It’s a safe bet that the vast majority of those flights were operated for United.

On the other hand, SkyWest had an 81.9 percent on time arrival rate in Salt Lake compared to Delta’s even better 89.7 percent. Those were mostly operated for Delta. What does this tell us? It shows that no matter who you’re flying, regionals tend to operate fewer flights on time than the majors. The reason is that when the weather ramps up, smaller airplanes tend to get delayed first because fewer people are inconvenienced than if a big plane gets delayed. But it shows that the numbers you see are certainly deceiving. The DOT needs to change this.

Consistently Late Flights
Here’s a great reason why these numbers are again rough. Hawaiian may have had the best on time performance, but guess what? Of all the flights that were delayed at least 80 percent of the time in January, a full 40% were operated by Hawaiian. So they may have good on time performance in general, but don’t try to tell that to all the people stuck on those six flight numbers from the mainland.

But just because a plane is consistently late doesn’t mean it’s the worst thing around. For example, a whopping 87.1 percent of the time, Delta flight 6578 from Kansas City to JFK (operated by Comair) was delayed by an average of 34 minutes. That’s bad, but it’s not nearly as bad as Skywest 5942 between San Francisco and Sacramento. That flight was operated as United Express, and it was “only” late 83.87 percent of the time. But guess what? It was late an average of 92 minutes. You could drive there faster.

Flight Cancellations
When we look at flight cancellations, we can really see the plan to impact regional flights over mainline flights in place. Regional carriers filled the top 6 spots when it came to cancellation percentage with Pinnacle taking the cake with a 4.1 percent cancellation rate. US Airways was the top mainline carrier with 3 percent, but again, when you fill in the blanks with express carriers, it might change things entirely. We just don’t have that kind of visibility, especially since their two wholly-owned carriers (Piedmont and PSA) aren’t included in the data at all.

Ramp Delays Over 3 Hours
In January, there were only two flights with ramp delays over 4 hours, both Delta flights. The first was from Ft Myers to LaGuardia. That flight diverted to Harrisburg to wait out the weather. It waited for a long friggin’ time, but it did eventually go. With the new rule, this flight would simply have canceled in Harrisburg and some alternate mode of transportation would have had to be arranged, probably a bus.

The second was a flight from Charlotte to Atlanta. They were delayed coming out of Charlotte because of bad weather in Atlanta. In fact, there were a bunch of weather diversions into Charlotte so the gates were all filled and they couldn’t get back to the gate. They now have a procedure set up to get people off on the ramp.

Moving down to 3 hour delays, there were 21 flights that were delayed over that limit for a .004% rate out of all flights. Delta had the most with 8.

Mishandled Bags
I really hate this number. I’ve written about this in the distant past, but let me refresh your memories. The mishandled bag number is the number of lost bags per 1,000 passengers. What a stupid number. So one month you could have 1,000 passengers that check no bags and the next they could check 3 bags each. The number needs to be the number of lost bags per 1,000 checked bags. I won’t even bother here.

This is another rough measure, because it’s only complaints that reach the DOT. People don’t generally complain to the DOT unless the airline hasn’t helped them. So this is a better measure of what airlines aren’t helping their customers (or which airlines have the most irrational customers) than it is a measure of which airlines people have complaints with.

The metric shows the number of complaints per hundred thousand passengers, so for some of these airlines, the numbers are so small that year over year comparisons aren’t great. For example, in January 2008, Atlantic Southeast had .96 complaints per hundred thousand passengers, but this January it plunged to .30 complaints. Hooray! Oh wait. They had a total of 3 complaints for the entire month, down from 9 the year before. That’s such a small number that it’s hard to really draw any conclusions.

The other problem here is how complaints are allocated. If we look at the breakdown, there were 927 total complaints in January. Of those, 109 were related to reservations/ticketing/boarding. It’s going to be hard for Atlantic Southeast to get any complaints in that category since they don’t handle those functions. They have a bunch in baggage as well. What if it’s going from an express flight to a mainline flight? Whose fault is that? If the mainline carriers handles the ground handling for both, then it should be the mainline carrier, but if it’s tied to a flight number, it may fall to the express carrier.

Again, it’s the problem of operational carrier vs marketing carrier that clouds things here. We really need to have everyone show their numbers by marketing carrier to really make things fair.

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