Corrected: Shining the Spotlight on October’s Operational Problem Children

American, United

My apologies, but I somehow mixed up the A14 numbers for Southwest, Frontier, and United. This has been corrected, and I have updated the post to reflect the correct data.


Ah, October. Fall has arrived, thunderstorms have diminished, and the weather is about as good as it usually can be. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect — it never is — but October is usually a great month for comparing operational performance between airlines without a ton of external interference. Thanks to masFlight, I have all the data right here.

While I could talk about the operational winners, you’d get bored quickly. As usual, Delta and Alaska did very well. Spirit has also regained its place near the top, where it was before things fell apart this summer. It’s the stuff down below that’s more interesting. Let’s start with a chart showing D0 (departures exactly on time or earlier) and A14 (arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule).

Corrected: Data via masFlight

You can see that I’ve highlighted a few of these airlines to talk about in greater detail. But before we do that, I want to show you the percentage of flights each airline completed, so you’ll have a more complete picture.

Data via masFlight is for marketing carrier including regionals

Quite the colorful graphs, I know. Let’s walk through the four airlines that I’ve highlighted.

American

American has been the whipping boy of the industry lately, yet here we see an airline that doesn’t look all that bad. Considering what happened earlier this year to the airline, this looks downright fantastic. But the airline still canceled more than one percent of its flights.

I dug in here to see if it was a regional vs mainline issue, but it’s really not much of one. American canceled about 1 percent of mainline and 1.5 percent of regional flying, but on-time arrival numbers were almost identical. And American Eagle actually saw more planes get off the gate on time than mainline.

There is still work to be done here, but at least it’s heading in the right direction.

United

United was quick to point out at media day that it had a lot more traffic subject to air traffic control delays than others simply because of the airports where it hubs. In September, things looked dismal, especially with the San Francisco runway closure snarling operations. But in October, the airline has rebounded. It has a respectable completion factor, canceling fewer than one percent of flights, but its on-time performance continues to lag the group. Was that an ATC issue or is it systemic?

I did a head-to-head comparison in Chicago versus American and the results were reversed. You can’t cry about the weather when both airlines are facing the same thing. In Chicago, American had a 99.3 percent completion rate, and that was just behind United’s 99.4 percent. For on-time performance, United was 3.5 points better. So at least on a head-to-head basis, United takes the lead. Both airlines need to improve to be in Delta’s world, but American has a bit further to go to catch up to United all else being equal.

Southwest

Remember when Southwest used to be the most on-time airline? Those days are ancient history. As usual, Southwest has prioritized quick scheduled turn times, so barely more than half the flights actually get off the gate on time. But it makes up a lot of time in the air and arrives on-time in 4th place.

What’s worse here is that Southwest is canceling more than one percent of flights. This isn’t as big of an issue compared to someone like Frontier, because Southwest has a lot more frequency to reaccommodate on, but it’s not ideal. My guess is that Southwest is pushing its fleet harder to account for the MAX still being grounded,and that may be putting more stress on the operation.

Frontier

Ooof, this is bad. The thing about Frontier is that it flies most routes less than daily, so if there’s a cancellation, it’s not easy for passengers to recover. And Frontier cancels more flights than anyone else on this list. To be fair, Denver had a bad last week of October with snowstorms, so that certainly contributed. But the airline just has to be better at not canceling, even if it runs late.

Put it another way. If Frontier had Spirit’s completion factor, it would have run about 100 more flights in October. That’s up around 20,000 people who wouldn’t have been stuck due to a cancellation. On-time performance can lag a bit — though I would argue being the only airline with less than 80 percent of flights arriving within 14 minutes is more than “a bit” — but cancel numbers need to be a whole lot better.

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16 comments on “Corrected: Shining the Spotlight on October’s Operational Problem Children

  1. Is Southwest’s poor performance due to it stretching its system as tight as it can, given the Max issues, so as to maximize the flights it actually can complete?

    I know that the Max situation has been going on for many months now, and I’m sure that Southwest isn’t scheduling as many flights as it would if not for the Max grounding, but I’m assuming that it is stretching the planes it has as tight as it possibly can while keeping delays/cancellations/IRROPS just within projected allowable tolerances.

    Also, kudos for using the company colors of each airline for the bars of your graphs. Really love that attention to detail, and it makes the graphs much more readable.

    1. I was going to ask the same question about the MAX. WN long ago quit being the budget friendly airline. If they can’t run the planes on time where does that leave them? A legacy without any perks?

      1. They may not have business or first-class seats to upgrade you to, but their frequent flier program is pretty compelling if you live near a WN base and fly a lot. Their points are more valuable than the points of the legacy carriers, and there are no concerns about availability – even if you want to fly your family to Cabo or Cancun over Christmas week, your points will be worth at least 1.5 cents each. The Companion Pass is also amazing if you fly for work and would sometimes like to bring your partner with you, and is useful for other trips as well.

        There are obviously major downsides (no way to redeem to Europe, Asia, etc.)

        1. I like WN as there is no penalty fee for changes or cancellations of reservations. This means i can book long ways out, rebook if prices go down, or cancel if i change my mind and use the $$ for future travel. For me, this is a huge perk – not to mention one can use points for ANY flight where there are seats on sale.

  2. As a non-financial guy who isn’t as worried about block padding I really don’t care about D0, and barely care about A14 (sidenote, if I arrive 30min early is that an A14 fail?)

    What I tend to worry about is a flight late enough to blow my connection.

    That is a stat they need to somehow add.

    If they can’t get honest misconnect data, here is maybe how to approximate it.

    Consider when the plane is in the air all current passenger connection times are locked in.

    Next take a timestamp when the pax start to exit the plane.

    If the time was scheduled above min connect time and thanks to lateness, then the delay should be assessed according to how much below min connect time.

    say 10% below mct, probably fine as I imagine there is a buffer in estimates, so little points

    70% below mct, you may be screwed so this is more points in the analysis.

    1. Very much agree with A_B: it is the missed connections that should count as well. Case in point: I was sold a 27 minute PHX connection on AA last week: CLT – PHX – SJC. We left 10 minutes late, but then encountered headwinds which slowed us down even more, and we had a slightly more northern departure to get around weather. In the end, while in flight, I knew we were landing when my connecting flight was departing. It was the same headwinds that had turned my LHR – CLT flight two days earlier to 9 hrs 37 minutes (they did find some friendly air and managed to bring it down to just over 9 hours).

      Any further hopes of making my PHX connections were dashed when (A) the Memphis – PHX flight, the plane carrying on for PHX – SJC, was on time/early (of course – when you need a flight delay it doesn’t…), and (B) the gate changed for my connecting flight (it was to be adjoining gates, until it wasn’t anymore…).

      In the end I changed to a delayed flight PHX – SFO as that still allowed me to make my meeting in the Valley on time.

      I asked why they would sell a 27 minute PHX connection but I was assured by AA that this was a “legal” connection. Oh well…

      1. It’s been that way for a long time. I think 25 minutes was the minimum connection time in PHX back when it was America West based there. Sounds like that hasn’t changed.

  3. I’d note that the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex had some severe weather events in October which would disproportionately affect AA, and WN to a lesser degree

  4. Anyone that wants to understand what is really happening with airline on-time should regularly read the DOT’s air travel consumer report. They provide enormous amounts of detail including at the carrier/city level which makes it very easy to see where real problems are. They also provide year to date tallies and also include cancellations, baggage and wheelchair mishandling, overbooking (voluntary and involuntary), and consumer complaints. DOT’s on-time data is 2 months behind the actual month.

    The most recent DOT report is here
    https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/resources/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/353986/october-2019-atcr.pdf

    It shows that on a year to date basis, the most on-time airlines are Hawaiian, Delta and its regional carriers, and then Alaska. Southwest is #4, American is #7 and United is #8, with each about 2 points different from each other.
    The problem airports for August, the focus of the DOT’s October on-time report, were Boston, all 3 NYC airports, Ft. Lauderdale and San Francisco. SFO performed better than the NYC and Boston airports. EWR was the worst performing large hub – 10 points lower than JFK.
    It is also worth noting the difference in on-time between carriers at the same city. As was true for October using CF’s data, AA and UA don’t differ markedly at ORD. Neither is going to lose or gain passengers based on operational performance. However, in airports like Boston where Delta and its regional carriers consistently have a 5 point or larger on-time advantage over B6, there are corporate clients which DL most certainly is able to persuade to consider Delta.
    It is also worth noting that for August, DL’s ATL hub was at 86.9, by far the best performance for any legacy carrier hub. DL at DTW and MSP were around 85% – 10 plus points higher than ORD. Given that Delta operates the world’s largest hub at Atlanta, they have committed the resources to make it work well and more importantly to recover when a major IROP hits. They have had spectacular failures at Atlanta (so have the Falcons and Braves)– but so has every other airline/hub. NW did a great job of making DTW and MSP work well – and better than ORD – and DL has only built on how well its big 3 domestic hubs do relative to the rest of the industry and the data shows it. SLC is almost always a better performing hub than DEN.

    The legacy carriers have built their networks around connecting passengers at their hubs. When you have 75% or lower on-time in a hub, large numbers of passengers are going to misconnect. All of the talk about connection saver technology and slick 50 passenger two cabin regional jets don’t matter if you miss your connection – and they can’t hold enough flights to make up for a 10 point difference in on-time between competing hubs. WN connects far fewer passengers than the big 3 but they run a tight operation so struggle to get their operation back on track after IROPS – which is why they cancel when things go bad; however, many of their flights have 45 minutes or more of ground time in their hubs/focus cities – not much different than the legacies. WN’s hubs/focus cities are generally at less weather impacted cities than AAL or UAL. Because WN dominates its hubs, it also isn’t affected by what other carriers do.

    We are now 40 years beyond the deregulation of the US domestic airline industry. Airlines have chosen the hubs they want to keep and have the technology and resources to make their hubs work – if they want to. On-time is simply a choice of how much money airlines want to spend – no more, no less. Airlines like Alaska and Delta have determined that running a consistently on-time airline – or recovering quickly when things fall apart – translates into good revenue.

  5. I think JetBlue should be commended for running higher A14 than United with a much better completion factor in similarly congested airspace

  6. Hm. With those corrected numbers, isn’t it true that Southwest is scheduling badly? It seems like they should have longer turnaround times and correspondingly shorter, less-padded segment lengths. This would improve D0, improve connections, have no effect on aircraft utilization, and have relatively little change on A14. Am I thinking about this wrong?

    1. Grichard – It doesn’t really matter. You’re just hiding the padding either in the turn or in the block. It’s all the same in the end.

  7. “Both airlines need to improve to be in Delta’s world”

    again, only people who know jack about airport stats interpret results like that. Look at how ridiculously poor DL’s on time rate is at LGA.

    if DL truly were superior in their ops instead of merely being a function of junk hourly shuttle flights to worthless parts of the southeast skewing the metric, then their LGA rate should be far higher than UA EWR. but instead, month over month, year over year, the trends are clear – when the playing field is leveled, DL fares no better than its rivals.

    1. I have no idea what your point is but ALL of the NYC airports have very poor on-time performance.

      LGA is actually in the middle in terms of on-time for the month of August which is the most recent month that the DOT reported in August.
      Delta actually has the BEST on-time at LGA even though DL’s performance w/ its connection carriers was only 68%.
      EWR had the worst on-time of the NYC airports despite the fact that EWR actually handled the fewest flights. Yes, that is right, LGA handles more flights than EWR even though EWR has two parallel and an intersecting runway and LGA has two intersecting runways.
      United’s on-time is within 1/10 of a percent of EWR as a whole but there is a 9 point on-time difference between EWR and LGA. Delta was one point above UA and EWR as a whole.
      JFK had the best on-time about 4 points better than LGA. AA and DL had the same on-time, both of which were better than the airport average.

      Again, I’m not sure what your point is but Delta had the best on-time at all 3 airports for the month of August according to the DOT.

      But on-time at all 3 NYC airports is bad and likely always will be.

      EWR is now often the worst in on-time. EWR was fully slot controlled but the FAA relaxed those controls because UA did not use its slots as regularly as the FAA required. Now, EWR has more competition and lower on-time than the other 2 NYC airports on a consistent basis.

      I’m not sure what your point is but Delta does the best job in a city that has notoriously bad on-time performance at all 3 airports. United has below average on-time for the city as a whole largely due to the regular ATC delays which are the result of the FAA’s strategy to push more traffic through EWR because UA didn’t use its slots as the FAA required.

      Those are facts, uncomfortable as they may be

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