I’ve spent a lot of time looking at flight schedules here over the past month or so, and it does tell a rather interesting story about how individual airlines have approached the plunge in demand due to the pandemic. But the reality is that flight schedules only tell part of the story. You can schedule a million flights, but that doesn’t mean you have to operate them.
I’ve spent very little time lately looking at operational performance. With so few airplanes flying, there are plenty of spares and no air traffic control delays. On-time performance just wasn’t an issue worth looking at. But as time has dragged on, I figured it was time to dive back in. I recently decided to rekindle my love affair with masFlight and took at look.
Before we delve into the meaningful data, let’s look at on-timer performance. In April, the worst DOT on-time performance — within 14 minutes of schedule (A14) — by a US carrier (excluding Allegiant which is either an outlier or the data isn’t right) was Delta at 92.6 percent. That’s the WORST. In a normal month, Delta would be at the top, and its numbers would be lower than this. Alaska topped the list at an impressive 97 percent of flights arriving within 14 minutes of schedule.
When you look at departures exactly on time or earlier (D0), the numbers are even more incredible. The worst performer was Spirit with a mind-numbingly good 86 percent of flights off the gate on time or earlier. Alaska was over 92 percent. This is just astounding… and it’s hardly worth a story.
So why am I writing this post? Ah yes, let me get back off this tangent. There is one piece of information that’s rather telling, and that’s the percent of scheduled flights that the airlines actually operate. Take a look at April numbers by airline (including regionals).
These are the worst numbers I’ve ever seen on the whole, and that is quite the spread between airlines. But saying these are the “worst” isn’t really fair, because this doesn’t mean the airlines are running poor operations. It’s more a reflection of the swiftness of the pandemic’s impact on air travel and how each airline handled the flight pulldown process.
In early April especially, airlines didn’t realize they needed to cancel as many flights as they did until it was fairly close to departure. Think of this as a last-minute schedule change process that just isn’t needed in any remotely-normal situation.
Some airlines like Frontier were able to maintain decent operational integrity. Of course, canceling 10 percent of your flights would be disastrous in any normal month, but here, it’s leading the pack. And there’s Southwest way down at the bottom. Southwest is an airline that has never really had a robust schedule change process, and it appears to have chosen to keep the schedule intact and cancel down later.
The further we get from the initial shock, the fewer cancellations we’ll see show up in the operational numbers. In other words, schedule changes will be handled further out. Here’s the first two weeks of May compared to all of April.
As you can plainly see, every airline is running a far higher percentage of flights than before, and that’s because they had more time to create stable schedules. “Stable” is, of course, a relative term. There is still nothing stable about these numbers — which are probably the second worst I’ve seen on an industry-wide basis — but hey, they’re light years better than April.
Take note: We do still see Southwest lagging the rest by a fair amount, and that may very well be by design. You might assume that we would keep seeing this trend of canceling fewer and fewer flights going forward, but that may not be the case for everyone.
The low level of demand means there are customers to be fought over. So there is an incentive for airlines to schedule more, try to fill up airplanes, and then cancel close to departure if nobody ends up booking. That is the opposite of how an airline would normally operate, but again, this is not a normal situation.
Could American or Southwest get an advantage by having more connections via more hubs to more places than Delta and United? They sure could. But if the gamble doesn’t work, they can cancel down later. Airlines need to be careful here. There is a balance to be found that allows a more robust schedule that avoids angering customers and employees down the line if they cancel too close to departure. But at least from an employee perspective, airlines have never had this much flexibility to run these kind of scenarios.
Think about it. Airlines realize they have a ton of airplanes and a ton of flight crews that will all remain employed until at least September 30 thanks to the CARES Act. That is the kind of flexibility no airline ever generally has, and that slack in the system means that these airlines can take more scheduling risks.
So, is American’s plan to operate twice as many flights as Delta or United in June part of a strategy or is it just a strange bullishness? I suppose we’ll find out on July 1. Then we’ll know just how much each airline actually operated.