Last week I wrote about Spirit’s flagging on time performance. Shortly after, I had a call with the airline’s Chief Operating Officer, Tony Lefebvre, to discuss what was happening. After talking to him, I got together with the masFlight guys and took a harder look at the numbers. After this deep dive, it seems pretty clear that Spirit is trading on time performance so that it can avoid missed connections, fly more flights, and not have to cancel any of them. Some may think that’s a good idea while others may disagree, but here’s why it looks the way it does.
I asked Tony straight up: what happened in April that made the performance start to fall down? He said that “we increased our flying significantly in Chicago and Dallas and we’ve been in LaGuardia but we’re flying a bit of a different service pattern in the market. Year over year, there’s been significantly more weather and ATC-related issues in those markets.”
New Routes Aren’t the Problem
It is certainly true that Spirit has moved away from its previous standing as basically a way to fly from the US into the Caribbean via Florida in recent times. The rapid and massive expansion around bigger cities in the US has created a new style of operation, one that is more prominent in the summer when Caribbean flying shifts. But did it really hurt on time performance? The data doesn’t make it look that way.
Yes, it looks like Chicago, Dallas, and Minneapolis did slow things down a little, but Spirit also put a lot of flights into places like Phoenix-Mesa, LA, Oakland, and Portland. Those cities helped to make up for the losses elsewhere so the impact should have been negligible. In fact, during the second quarter of this year, new routes ran on time 68.1 percent while existing routes were only 64.9 percent.
So if it’s not that, what is it? It doesn’t look like the problem started in April. Rather, it looks like Spirit got lucky this year with benign winter weather. Without that, we’re probably looking at lower performance during the winter as well. That makes it a broader question. Why doesn’t Spirit run on time as much as the others? It’s something about how Spirit structures the operation.
It’s Not the Block
The airline really pushes the boundaries when it comes to flying airplanes around to keep costs down. It tends to fly its airplanes over 13 hours a day. For a narrowbody operation, that’s incredible. (JetBlue is under 12 while Southwest is under 11.) How does it do that?
Part of it is, according to Tony, keeping block times short. The block time is the time from when the airline leaves the gate to the time it gets to the arrival city gate. If an airline wants to fly an on time operation, it can just pad its block times so that even if it leaves late, it will still arrive on time. It’s not a terrible thing to pad your block times if you can’t run a good operation but then you’re going to hurt your utilization and can’t fly as many hours in the day.
And for Spirit, utilization is huge. It runs its airplanes pretty hard these days and that means it can probably squeeze an extra flight versus what others would operate in a day. If it had to fly one less flight per airplane per day, you’re probably looking at an extra $3 in cost for every single seat on every flight. Spirit simply won’t be able to absorb that. So how does Spirit do on block time?
Tony said, “I have most of the competitors data on block performance and they tend to be 10 to 15 percent different. [American] has a little bit more block.” Since American flies a lot in Chicago, New York, and Dallas, that seemed like a good one for comparison. But the difference in block time isn’t quite as clear here. In a market like New York to Chicago, there is some variability. Today’s 835a flight from LaGuardia to Chicago on Spirit is blocked at 2h40m. That’s the same as American’s 910a departure but 15 minutes longer than American’s 750a departure.
Of course, these are just small examples but there isn’t a clear level of padding across the board here. On a broader scale, Spirit tends to complete about the same percentage of flights (if not slightly more) within the scheduled time versus American. That means it doesn’t look like American is really padding compared to Spirit. (United, however, does pad more and completes more flights within the scheduled block time, so the comparison versus the industry on the whole may be accurate.)
Spirit does, however, keep its ground time in between flights pretty short with little downtime. That means even when Spirit flies a flight that goes a few minutes over scheduled block time, there’s probably a higher likelihood of it delaying the next flight without much time to spare.
Whether or not this is a problem is a question for debate. It’s a strategy to have very little slack throughout the day. But that conflicts with another part of the strategy Take it away, Tony:
Holding for Connections
[In Ft Lauderdale] we didn’t have some of the daily occurrences we were dealing with in Chicago and New York, but we run an operation that’s a bank operation in Ft Lauderdale and one or two flights get knocked out of the system and it impacts your flying for the rest of the day. You don’t want to leave any customers stranded so you hold that bank.
Spirit connects fewer than 10 percent of its passengers, but it still runs a hub-style operation in Ft Lauderdale that can take connections. If flights are late coming into that bank, then Spirit will hold flights for people. Why? It may be good customer service, but the reality is that if it doesn’t do that, with Spirit’s high load factors and low frequency, there won’t be a way to get these people to their destinations. And then Spirit misses out on all those ancillary revenue opportunities that have proven to be so lucrative. So it makes sense for it to try to avoid missed connections.
On top of that, Spirit hates to cancel flights. It generally cancels under 1 percent of flights, and that’s certainly better than the industry. That means that while other airlines might cancel a flight (and it won’t show up in on time performance numbers), Spirit will just run it as late as it needs to. This may be a good thing for passengers, but as Spirit grows and establishes a presence in airports with worse weather events than Florida, it could backfire. (Anyone remember the Valentine’s Day disaster with JetBlue in New York?)
And as Spirit starts to put airplanes on more and more routes that are competitive with other airlines, the on time performance factor will become more important. The airline is changing a lot and that means it may need to constantly consider how it puts together its operation.
Spotlight on On Time Performance Coming Soon
For its part, Spirit says that it wants to run on time performance that’s in the middle of the pack. “It’s a pretty good barometer if you’re looking at industry comparative data and you’re not an outlier,” Tony told me. But it hasn’t been there yet. Some of these things are being addressed operationally. Tony said that they are better positioning their spare aircraft to be able to fill in around the system as it grows. They also have a new crew base in Las Vegas which is “fully ramped” at this point, so that should help as well by having more crews available in the west. (Then again, things seem to run more on time in the west anyway.)
In the end, we might see some changes out of Spirit simply due to visibility. It expects to be big enough this year that it will have to begin reporting to the DOT next year. When that happens, the airline’s performance will have a bigger spotlight shined upon it. And that might be enough to get Spirit thinking about the best way to handle the trade-off of delays, missed connections, and cancellations.