United Improves While JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest Don’t in 2017 On-Time Derby

Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, JetBlue, Operations, United, Virgin America

It’s time for some fun with numbers. The year is over, and my technical issue with masFlight was fixed. That means I was able to cuddle up with my computer over the weekend and start thumbing through operational performance for 2017. I didn’t get quite as far as I would’ve liked, but there were four trends that popped out when it came to on-time performance. I figured I’d start there and then dig into some of the issues on future posts.

Let’s start with a chart showing the year-over-year change in on-time performance looking at two metrics: both departures on or before schedule (D0) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) metric of arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule (A14). Keep in mind this includes all regionals under the marketing brand name.

I chose this graph because you can identify the four trends I noticed pretty easily. Just in case you can’t, I’ve color-coded them for you.

United Pushes Planes On Time
On the left I posted the three legacy carriers together, and what really stands out is United’s huge improvement on getting airplanes off the gate on time. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise. President Scott Kirby used to have the same job at American, an airline that sees pushing airplanes on time as a religious obligation. You might be surprised, however, to see that arrivals on-time didn’t change much. I’d say that shows that the airline has had plenty of schedule padding in the past. Now with more airplanes getting out on time, it should be able to remove some of that, if it hasn’t already.

You might be surprised to see Delta taking a hit, but you shouldn’t be. Delta is still at the top of the heap on aggregate numbers. (It saw 84 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes of schedule while United had 81.7 percent and American has 80.8 percent.) It’s hard to keep going up when you’re already that high. But I’m guessing some things like the power outage in Atlanta really hurt the airline. I’d look for Delta to, ahem, start climbing again this year.

Southwest Is Not Running A Good Operation
That’s quite a drop in performance for the LUV birds, but as bad as the trend looks, the actual numbers seem even worse. Southwest was by far the worst airline at getting airplanes off the gate on time. It saw only 53.4 percent of flights push back on or before schedule, and that is pretty awful. Maybe those 737-300s really acted up before they left the fleet in September. Or maybe Southwest just needs to run a better airline. It should be noted that there’s enough padding in there that Southwest still landed 79.7 percent of flights on schedule. That’s not awful, but it’s behind each of the big three. And the trends just aren’t going in the right direction.

Alaska and Virgin America Have Merger Pains
If you thought the Southwest numbers looked bad, keep moving to the right. It was not a good year for Alaska and Virgin America. Alaska saw performance slip with A14 dropping from 87.1 percent in 2016 to 82.9 percent last year. That, of course, is still a decent number (at least it’s better than Southwest), but that’s a steep drop. Virgin America, meanwhile, saw an even worse plunge from 77.5 percent all the way down to 71.6 percent. There really isn’t any good news here. Alaska is clearly struggling with how to best operate an airline that has a huge chunk of its operation at San Francisco, an incredibly delay-prone airport. I tend to give management a pass on things like this during a merger integration, but that pass won’t last much longer. We’ll look in 2019 to see if Alaska is really up to the task of fixing this.

JetBlue is Still Running Poorly
JetBlue saw its on-time departures actually tick up a tenth of a percent. The problem is, it’s still only at 58.5 percent. And arrivals? The airline skidded down to a mere 73.5 percent of planes getting to the gate within 14 minutes of schedule. There is no merger to blame here. Oh sure, JetBlue has its biggest operation in the crowded Northeast. But guess what? Delta has the same problem, and I don’t see that airline floundering. JetBlue has a lot of work to do here.

Of these, it’s really Southwest and JetBlue that I want to study more closely. I’ll let Alaska have a little more time to digest its merger. And United? Well, there’s not much to pick apart there, I don’t think. But clearly Southwest and JetBlue are having problems, and these are problems that need attention. Let’s see if a little more moonlight masFlight data-digging will help shine a spotlight on what’s really going on.

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32 comments on “United Improves While JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest Don’t in 2017 On-Time Derby

  1. I think it’s fair to note that JetBlue has 70% of its operation at JFK and BOS which is a far far greater concentration then Delta (around 20% JFK is memory serves) or the others. Combine that with multiple extreme ground delays this summer (4+ hours) by ATC and the runway construction in both JFK and BOS this last year. I think JetBlue deserves a bit of a pass as well.

    1. JetBlue always gets a pass. The employees are nice, and as a passenger I appreciate that. But the management must be inept. Unless the skies are clear for 1000 miles, expect that your JetBlue flight will be delayed. I’ve migrated to Delta. The percentage of “nice” employees is lower, but they must be doing something right in terms of running an airline. As someone who works in finance, I listen to the earnings calls. JetBlue likely has the ability to invest more into human capital, but they simply aren’t. Why, I have no idea. No more passes.

    2. I love B6, but I don’t think they get a pass. If you look at JFK specifically, DL torched JB. Nothing but cost avoidance stops Blue from padding schedules more (block time or turn time) or investing in some studies to streamline operations and appropriately staff. But avoiding costs doesn’t usually create the conditions for a revenue premium…

    3. If you look at on-time data for days when NYC and Boston do not have any ATC delays – and there are indeed a few of those – JBLU still runs lower system on-time than other carriers, even when there are ATC delays in other parts of the country. JBLU simply does not have enough operational slack in its system and will only improve its on-time if they invest resources that go directly to improving on-time performance rather than growing the airline. Right now, JBLU is in growth mode and also does not seem to believe that lower on-time hurts their bottom line because if it did hurt them, they would fix the problem – but they aren’t and haven’t for quarter after quarter. Some people will stick with them despite the delays while other passengers do switch.

  2. Any chance you could use this as an excuse to do an Across the Aisle or podcast interview with Andrew Watterson (or someone similar) at Southwest?

    1. Kilroy – Andrew isn’t the right guy for that since he’s on the commercial side. (Besides, just did one with him.) But I’m more interested in playing around with the numbers first so I can get a better sense of what the problem is.

      1. Will eagerly await your analysis, CF. Would love to know what’s going on as I’ve noticed this over the past couple years flying and observing Southwest flights.

    1. I agree, DesertGhost, but I would offer that most people who fly are more worried about the availability of wi-fi and inflight entertainment on the aircraft than whether their flight operates on time. Sigh.

      1. Corporate and high frequency passengers do know the on-time performance of carriers on routes that they frequently travel and the sales departments of airlines that run stronger operations don’t hesitate to quote such information – since it is available from the government anyway. Further, there are carriers which offer similar amenities but have very different operational metrics.
        There are a subgroup of passengers that have little regard for time but they are clearly the minority in the US. They know the schedule when they buy their ticket and their frustration grows the longer they are expected to arrive beyond the scheduled arrival time

  3. JetBlue has unhappy pilots, and now trending in unhappy flight attendants. I fly them regularly. I don’t know why you’d want to compromise the employees with the most longevity (in the aggregate), and with the most invested in their aviation careers. I’m speaking of the pilots. As a frequent flyer whose flown on many carriers over many years, I notice that when the pilots are treated well by their employer, they tend to seem motivated to move the metal. Money talks, I guess.

    1. It’s interesting now how one of the major parts of being a flight attendant seems to revolve around being a passenger herder and spurring passengers on in order to get them on and off the planes faster. The past few flights I’ve had (on Delta), the FAs have made the usual, “This is a nearly full flight. Please find your seats as quickly as possible so that we can depart on time,” etc etc announcements almost every minute, and well over a dozen times during the boarding pass.

      I respect that as a passenger (some pax are just SLOW, and pax who sit in the wrong seat don’t help matters, nor does the tight overhead bin space on some planes), but at a certain point it gets pretty annoying and just makes me tune out the FAs, including when they make more important announcements later in the flight.

    2. Steve, I’m not sure I understand your “when pilots are treated well” comment. There are many pilots who are very happy with their jobs, but often, when a union is negotiating a contract, or the union perceives a slight by airline management, the public is made to think that pilots aren’t happy because of union rhetoric. Being “treated well” is subjective for each pilot, and “moving metal” safely and efficiently and by complying with all Federal regulations and company policies is a pilot’s job.

      1. I don’t think it’s the union that’s being slighted. It’s the pilots. The union is merely the representative body. I used to nervously fly TWA in their dying days out of STL. Nervous because I thought they’d go out of business any day. But their CEO (as I recall) was actually a pilot at the airline, and gave their captains wide latitude with regard to operating the airplane to meet the demands of the timetable. They ended up with top performance in many metrics and the J.D. Power awards to boot. Delta seems to empower its pilots this way now, and their operational performance seems to reflect this.

  4. D0 is meaningless if you don’t arrive on time. The only numbers I care about are A0 and A14. If you greatly improve you D0 and you don’t improve your A14, you need to fix the underlying root cause or accept that you can’t fix it (ATC, Weather, etc.).

    Obviously, departing on time is important to arriving on time, but it’s not the most important stat IMO.

    1. I agree with you intellectually, but I think many passengers have anxiety and comfort correlated to D0 more than A14. For D0, they blame everyone and everything cause they were at the gate and ready. Once in the air, (provided the arrival delay isn’t waiting for a gate), pax tend to write off “traffic” a bit calmer.

    2. I agree that A0 and A14 are the most important passenger metrics but those times are so heavily padded it doesn’t tell you if the airline is running a decent operation (like D0 does) or if the airline just does a great job of flying a 1 hr 20 min flight in a 3 hr block (United, I’m looking in your general direction. You too JetBlue).

  5. Anecdotally it feels like Southwest struggles to turn a plane in less 40 minute. Doesn’t seem to matter if the inbound is late or not, doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a -700 or an -800, doesn’t seem to matter if it’s booked to 65% or 95%. Not sure where the faults lie but it is evident in these results.

  6. In terms of overall on-time, the only statistic that the media tracks – because the DOT has used it for years and pushes out a report based on it – is A14. Airlines publish what time their flight is supposed to arrive and it really doesn’t matter to passengers what happens between scheduled departure time and scheduled arrival time.
    While it is neat to look at change in on-time, it is equally – if not more relevant – to look at actual on-time and in changes to system on-time ranking. How well a carrier improves or not improves its on-time doesn’t matter if other carriers move as well or are more highly ranked to begin with- and the article doesn’t highlight those things.
    It is perhaps most notable that Delta passed Alaska as running the 2nd most on-time large jet airline operation. Once Virgin Atlantic and Alaska’s on-time numbers are merged, AS will be a mid-tier on-time airline at best. Further, the gap between Delta and Hawaiian’s on-time has narrowed while there is still a fairly significant gap between Delta and carriers behind it in on-time, including United. Factor in that Delta had several significant operational meltdowns in 2017 and the beginning of winter has been worse in the east and SE (including Atlanta) than in the Midwest (Chicago) and Southwest (Texas hubs) and it is clear that DAL manages to run a much more on-time operation on a pretty consistent basis.

    1. the Jetblue Plus card offers each passenger on a reservation their first bag free if they purchased “blue” fares

  7. What evidence do you hold that Southwest does not run a good operation? D0? When an airline seeks high utilization of its aircraft, in an inherently varying environment, it will post a lower D0 ipso facto. It’s part of what makes lower costs–and lower fares–possible.

    1. Carl – Of course it all depends on how you define it, but if you look at on time arrivals (A0), Southwest had only 59%, the lowest of any airline in my sample. Delta was nearly 71% and United was 68%. And then there’s the comparison between D0 and A0. Most airlines will have A0 somewhat lower than D0. It shows they’re scheduling it with less slack and variations in flight time means that A0 will slip. For example, American had 69% of flights go on time (D0) and 63% of flights arrive on time (A0). But Southwest is the opposite. It had only 53.4% D0 but 59% A0. That tells me they’re scheduling with more slack in the system, and that’s the sign of a sub-optimal operation.

      Of course, this requires digging in further. Southwest may schedule it that way because it prefers to put slack on flight time and then instead schedule short turns on the ground. But that doesn’t seem like a good way to do it either.

      1. Why not? We know this was the case in the 1990s, when Southwest’s turns were only 10 minutes, yet they led the industry in on time arrivals. Also coincidently when their earnings growth was the toast of the industry. Was that a bad operation?

        1. Carl – Well yes, if they can do short turns and lead in on time performance, then that is a great way to operate. But that’s not what’s happening here. Southwest isn’t the efficient airline it used to be.

            1. Carl – Well, if they aren’t getting to places on time, then they’re under-scheduling the amount of time they need. Either that, or they just aren’t running a good operation and need to fix it. Either way, something is not working right.

  8. Any comparison of statisticical performance must begin with a reasonably similar method of recording statistics. With airlines this is not and never has been the case. One airline among the top 10 uses a distictly different method than the other nine. Southwest records their “IN” time by having a crewmember verbally call it in, all others use a mechanical device which cannot be altered by a crewmember. Furthermore when a Southwest Pilot changes an IN time it has no effect on his or her pay; unlike the other 9 airlines, where changing an IN time, to improve the airlines ontime performance, will in most cases reduce their pay. In cranky’s editorial comment he accounts for the difference between their OFF time and their IN time statistic by suggesting there is “padding”. Infact the truth is Southwest uses a system that would be disqualified from any comparison by a competent statistician. And the govenments justification for allowing this is the same as allowing Southwest to enjoy a near monopoly on Love field.

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