Is a Labor Slowdown The Reason United’s Operation Has Been Terrible?

I’ve received several emails and read a handful of articles talking about United’s recent operational problems. If you’ve flown United this month, then you already know how ugly things have become. But what is causing this mess? The rumblings out there suggest that there may be a 15th anniversary party going on to recreate the nightmare that was the summer of 2000. Back then, it was the pilots that brought the airline to its knees. This time, the rumor is that the mechanics are behind it. Though I don’t expect official confirmation, the operational numbers do look mighty suspicious.

I went into the masFlight database to pull out operational details for June (all June numbers are only through June 26) vs May of this year. United and its regionals went from having a middling 77.7 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes of schedule to not even cracking 70 percent in June. Of course, June brings summer travel and worse weather so performance is expected to fall off. But look at what other airlines are doing.

Delta and its regionals had 80.5 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes of schedule in June. JetBlue was over 80 percent as well. Even American and US Airways, in the throes of a merger, were above 74 percent, still several points higher than United. What the heck is going on over there?

There are a lot of places to look, but suggestions from people on the inside pointed me toward the widebody operation. Below you’ll see arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule and percentage of flights completed for United systemwide divided into regional, narrowbody, and widebody aircraft.

United System Operational Problems

This in itself doesn’t look too terribly strange. It just looks like United is struggling across the board. When weather acts up, regional flights are more likely to cancel, so that’s not out of the ordinary. But there is one thing that stood out.

Take a look at widebody on-time performance. It deteriorated faster than the rest. That seems odd, so I decided to take this down to the hub level. That’s when things started to become much more clear. Take a look at all departures out of Newark.

United Newark Operational Problems

Newark weather was indeed worse in June than it was in May, so the general trend here isn’t surprising. And as mentioned, when the weather goes south, regional operations usually get canceled first. Why? Because smaller airplanes will impact fewer people. In general, the idea is to protect widebody flying, keeping it on time to inconvenience the fewest. That is NOT what we see here. We see a widebody operation that is completely falling apart.

Delta canceled exactly 1 widebody flight from JFK the entire month of June. United canceled 25 widebody flights from Newark making up more than 3 percent of the month’s schedule. That’s more than 6,000 people stuck from cancellations alone. Further, there were another 12 flights that masFlight doesn’t have status on. That could add to the total. But that’s not all. Look at the on-time percentage for those widebodies. Holy cow that’s bad. A mere 50 percent of widebodies departing Newark arrived at their destination within 14 minutes of schedule. That is shameful.

Something doesn’t smell right. Is United’s widebody fleet falling apart? Or might the mechanics just be saying it is? Look at flights inbound to Newark and it tells a very different story. Of course, cancellations were still high because if the plane doesn’t get out of Newark, it’s not going to come back either. But on-time percentage was a whopping 20 points higher on the inbound with more than 71 percent of flights arriving within 14 minutes of schedule. That’s quite the red flag there. But what about other hubs?

Dulles was similarly bad. Nearly 5 percent of all widebody departures were canceled in June and of those that did operate, only 59.8 percent arrived on time. In Houston, cancellations were better at under 2 percent, but on-time percentage was still low at 61.25 percent. Chicago was in the same low-60-percent neighborhood, though widebodies actually did have better performance than the rest of the fleet there. In San Francisco, things were much better. A mere 1.3 percent of departures were canceled there and on time performance soared to 70 percent.

How messed up is it when 70 percent of flights running on time seems good?

So while there do appear to be systemwide issues and have been for a long time, there is clearly something else going on here making things worse than they even usually are. I can’t say for sure if this is job action, but it wouldn’t be surprising. Let’s just see if performance bounces back suddenly. That would tell the story more clearly.

If you’re flying United, keep all this mind. Build in some long connections, and yes, bring heaps of patience.

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