It has been plastered all over the news. Flights are being canceled, schedules are being pulled back… you’d think the entire airline industry was falling off a cliff. That’s not the case, but what is true is that things are getting worse operationally pretty quickly, and not just for American as you might be led to believe from the headlines.
Airline operations have been so good for so long that I haven’t really had a need to turn to my old friend masFlight lately, but with troubles now making headlines, the time has arrived for a reunion. I pulled a variety of operational data for nine US airlines — American, Delta, United, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue, Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit — from masFlight, so this is going to be a very map-heavy post about just how things have been going.
I went back to the beginning of the year, but it wasn’t all that interesting until recently. So, I’m focusing on operational performance from May 1 through Saturday, June 19. We’ll start with the percent of flights the airlines have been canceling per day. As you can imagine, this chart can get very busy, very quickly, so I’m zeroed in only on those airlines with something going wrong.
% of Canceled Flights By Airline
There is no surprise here to see Southwest spiking recently. If you recall, Southwest had two technical failures two days in a row which snarled operations. You can see the line going off the chart here when that happened. But that was awhile ago, and what’s surprising is that Southwest is still running a pretty poor operation. Southwest tells me that cancels this week have nothing to do with those issues and were pre-cancels for weather reasons. With more than 200 flights cut yesterday and, when I looked last night, 41 already canceled for today, that seems quite aggressive if it’s just for weather reasons.
American is also one that won’t surprise people since it has been the headliner. It had a couple of very high cancellation days, and I assume that’s weather-related. But since the beginning of June when it put its June schedule into place, American has remained elevated over where it used to be.
Allegiant, United, and Delta have all had their spikes, though Delta’s is pretty small. Allegiant and United, however, have had more trouble as of late.
Now let’s look at on-time performance for those flights that actually did operate. I think this is my favorite chart. It takes all nine airlines and shows departures going out exactly on time or earlier (D0).
% of Departures AA/AS/B6/DL/F9/G4/NK/UA/WN Leaving On Time or Earlier (D0)
Talk about a fall. Airlines were pretty consistently pushing 70 percent of their flights out right on time, but we hit June and things started diving down. Now it’s closer to 55 to 60 percent, and that makes a big difference. Of course, you want to know who the culprits are, right? It’s everyone.
Change in D0 June 3 – June 19, 2021 vs May 1 – June 2, 2021
It’s been awful across the board. Apparently Delta and Spirit take the prize for sucking the least, but things are just getting more and more crowded, and performance is suffering everywhere.
Now, let’s look at arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule. I like this metric because it’s what the Department of Transportation uses, so it’s the most public-facing number out there.
% of Departures AA/AS/B6/DL/F9/G4/NK/UA/WN Arriving Within 14 Minutes of Schedule
Surprise, surprise. It’s still not great. Operations were solidly within the mid-80 percent range pretty consistently, and then they took a turn for the worse. It’s now closer to the mid-70 percent range.
How did the individual airlines do?
Change in A14 June 3 – June 19, 2021 vs May 1 – June 2, 2021
Some did poorly, but some were able to make up more time than others along the way, and that brings us to one of my favorite metrics, B0.
B0 shows what percent of the time a flight took as long as it was scheduled to take or less. If it took off 340 minutes late, it can still land 340 minutes late and be included as a win in this category. The idea is to understand what percentage of total flights operate within the amount of time budgeted, and that leads to whether things are being scheduled too aggressively or not.
Let’s skip the industry number and go straight to the airlines.
Change in B0 June 3 – June 19, 2021 vs May 1 – June 2, 2021
This looks even more different than the others. What can we derive from this? I’ll go through each airline to explain my thoughts.
- Alaska is doing just fine. It had been above 90 percent on-time, but thanks to delays in getting off the gate and block performance erosion, the airline dropped to having 85 percent on time. It doesn’t have a cancellation problem. this is probably what an airline would ideally want to look like as it entered a post-pandemic summer.
- Allegiant is at the other end of the spectrum where everything has fallen off a cliff. The airline is seeing fewer flights depart on time, fewer flights make it during the scheduled amount of time, and fewer flights arrive on time (only 59 percent!). Oddly, its taxi-in time grew by more than a minute. That’s far more than any other airline so it indicates some kind of issue getting the airplane to the gate, and it doesn’t use congested airports often. This looks like an operation that is stressed at all ends. The airline tells me that unusual weather, TSA staffing/throughput, and labor shortages are all contributing.
- American’s troubles are well-known, but it looks to be a bigger problem on the ground than in the air. American saw the lowest decline in B0, so once the airplanes get in the air, they’re doing fine and making up time. The problem is getting them off the gate on time and not canceling.
- Delta has had the least to talk about here, and it’s probably happy about that. Even though it’s fallen off a bit, the airline continues to pad its block times significantly more than others and has more buffer. It has set a high bar for cancellations and delays, so Delta is held to a higher standard. So far, it continues to meet it… as long as you exclude an occasional holiday meltdown.
- Frontier looks a lot like American without all those cancellation problems. Yes, on-time performance has sunk. Frontier also saw its taxi out times increase the most during that period, so that might explain its slightly slipping block performance.
- JetBlue did what JetBlue often does being so dependent upon crowded northeast airports. It saw its D0 drop significantly, but it actually lost ground in its A14 numbers. Block did slip, and that’s probably partially because taxi-out times increased by over 1 minute for the airline. JetBlue is never a top operator, but with A14 at 65 percent, it is falling to the bottom quickly.
- Southwest is doing very poorly. Cancellations are through the roof, and on-time performance has suffered. Let’s put it this way, it turned in a 64 percent A14 in the June period, even worse than JetBlue. Block perfromance has plunged which may be most concerning. Southwest has never been good at D0, preferring to make up for it elsewhere, but with a 35 percent D0 in June, it’s hitting ugly lows. Of course, some of this is skewed heavily by those computer problems, but the fact that the operation continues to lag is a real concern.
- Spirit has done pretty well for itself. Sure it saw a relatively small drop in on-time performance, but cancellations are not an issue, and it is still running 77 percent on time, good enough for third just behind Delta and Alaska. That’s probably where it wants to be.
- United’s weaker perfomance looks to be a self-inflicted wound. Block performance dropped more than any other airline save Allegiant. Its D0 wasn’t bad because it started at a high number, but it did decline precipitously. It sounds like the airline could use some more block time slack in the system.
It’s been a roller coast of a month, and it doesn’t seem like things are going to get better any time soon. American is proactively making adjustments, as mentioned yesterday, but it remains to be seen what the others will do, if anything, to regain their previous levels. We might just have to get used to the crowded skies again.