As Summer Ramps Up, Airline Operations Struggle Across the Board

Operations

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.

15 comments on “As Summer Ramps Up, Airline Operations Struggle Across the Board

  1. Brett said… “We might just have to get used to the crowded skies again.” That maybe the bottom line of all this, but I do wonder if you know what percentage of prepandemic flights are being scheduled. Also is it too much based on how much labor had left the industry during this downturn?

    BTW, The same has occurred in other transport related sectors as well such as coach/bus school bus/ transit bus drivers who left the industry do to the pandemic & who are very slowly returning, but many positions remain unstaffed.

  2. Cranky –
    I’m an amateur at this, but from the numbers to looks to me like AA is really padding their schedule compared to other carriers. While the cabin crews have got to love the long block times, doesn’t that raise costs considerably? In addition, my understanding is that, for cost reasons, AA has shaved back their manning at the gates to only have one agent regardless of equipment type or load factor. I’ve also heard that they are heavily reliant on contractors at many of their airports’ gates (including hubs!), which has affected quality and reliability. None of this can be helping D0. If all this is true, would it make sense to invest a little more in their airport operation and cutback on scheduled block hours?

    1. Heuchling – American isn’t outrageous here. The way to think about this is to look at the actual B0, not the change in B0. For June 3-19, here is the B0 by airline

      Delta 82.6% Southwest 76.1% American 76.0% Spirit 73.2% Frontier 71.5% JetBlue 71.0% United 66.2% Alaska 63.9% Allegiant 51.5%

      So what this means is that of Delta’s flights, 82.6% of them have operated within the scheduled block time or less. Allegiant had only just over half. Now you never want 100%, because it operates on a curve. Some days the winds are good, some days they aren’t. Some days it takes longer to taxi, some days it doesn’t. So ultimately what you want is something in a nice area where you aren’t overscheduling or underscheduling too much. You can see here that looks to be around the low 70% range.

      From these numbers, I take a few things. Delta is padding a lot, and they’re apparently fine with that even though it means they probably have a lot of flights arriving early. Southwest is also padding a lot, but it has a different strategy. Its D0 is horrendous (35% in this period) because it rarely pushes off the gate on time. Instead, it just pads the block to absorb the fact that it’ll leave late. I don’t know why. Personally, I find that annoying. At the other end, we have Allegiant which is just doing poorly everywhere. But then there’s Alaska which is still getting 85% of flights to arrive within 14 minutes despite not meeting block performance. That probably means that they are just getting airplanes out and on their way quickly and on time. That means even if block performance slips, they can still get a lot of flights on time using the 14 minute definition.

      1. For Allegiant, I would guess that on-time performance matters less since they don’t do connections. Customers might be a few minutes late to their destination, but they won’t be missing their connection.

        1. Exactly. Similarly, all else equal, canceling flights and bumping pax matters much more from a customer experience side on routes that an airline only operates 2 or 3x weekly, as opposed to 3+ times day.

  3. I can only speak for mainline UA here but I had a feeling our D:0 would take a hit due to Connection Saver. Even holding a flight for 1 minute obviously burns the D:0, but I feel UA believes taking the hit on that in the name of customer service is worth it.

  4. Irregular operations never impact all airlines and all cities in the industry equally and your data shows that. It also shows that operational problems began back in May and have involved multiple airlines since then. The wheels just happened to fall off for WN last week and AA over the weekend such that the daily baseline of 1-2% of cancelled flights could no longer be contained.
    The real impact is to customers and that is why DOT’s consumer complaints are a good indicator of how badly the public feels the pain of irregular operations even if that data is not available until months after a major operational event takes place. The DOT has released its Air Travel Consumer Report for travel through April 2021 and it shows that airline performance in most categories they track (on-time, cancellations, consumer complaints, baggage, wheelchairs and denied boardings) is now pretty close to the same as pre-covid. The huge spikes in cancellations and consumer complaints for all carriers that was seen early in the pandemic are not there anymore which means that operational problems easily show up – just as they did pre-covid.
    The number of consumer complaints from Delta’s operational problems around the holidays didn’t move their monthly consumer complaints beyond where Delta normally ranks in that category because flights were very lightly booked back then and Delta was seat blocking (which it temporarily suspended to accommodate passengers from cancelled flights).
    The temptation to sell flights and then fill them with passengers has been high for some airlines throughout the pandemic, most notably by American and Southwest. Even though every airline is facing staffing shortages in some workgroups and some locations, Alaska, Delta and Hawaiian are doing a pretty good job of running their operations now under the greatest stresses – but that was true pre-covid as well. American, JetBlue, and Southwest were willing to accept poor operational reliability before and that is true once again.
    As airlines fight to regain more lucrative business passengers, there is no doubt that they are looking at data exactly like what is in this article. Flying is a royal pain right now but when different airlines end up with very different operational results, it isn’t hard to figure where informed people and businesses will spend their money.

  5. It’ll take a while for staffing to normalize to these higher traffic levels. Not just in terms of hiring but training and acclimation of new hires as well. And not just aircrews but mechanics, rampers, dispatchers, etc. as well

  6. In response to one of my comments yesterday, “Kevin” wrote the following: “… (M)y station has a handful of brand new hires starting this week. After the past 12-18 months, I didn’t think that was a sentence I would be typing.” I’m guessing (and only guessing that he’s not the only person who’s observing this.

    When companies offer early retirement packages, and senior employees accept them, it causes a ripple effect on those left behind. And when an industry has effectively been mothballed and demand is unpredictable, stuff can happen.

    As I wrote yesterday, the obvious question going forward is how well the ramp-up issues are going to be managed. But I also think we should be as fair as we can about how we look at these things. Honest, constructive criticism is fine, as long as it’s fair and fact-based. Today’s post gives us some facts upon which to base our observations, but these facts don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Steps are being taken by all the carriers to mitigate future problems. I, for one, hope they work. Unlike some commenters I’ve read in various places, I’m not rooting for anyone to fail.

    Airline managers and employees have to anticipate what’s going to happen. And any human endeavor is going to include mistakes. It’s easy to be critical of others when one has the advantage of 20/20 hindsight.

    1. I am glad the federal government provided the $25B to airlines through the Cares Act to keep staff employed and requiring airlines to provided minimum service to cities during Covid. Airlines are partly struggling right now with the loss of some staff due to early retirements. If the government didn’t provide support, I can only imagine what this summer would look like if there had been major personnel cuts or if American Airlines was dissolved in bankruptcy.

      I am glad airlines are performing better than many rental car companies. There are weeks over the summer where you can not get a car at MCO or SLC.

  7. Thank you Brett for the timely report.

    Kudos to AA for taking proactive measures to relieve some of the pressure. Their only mistake however was not spinning the reductions in a more positive way.

    Even without the recent IT outages, WN is really struggling. So much so that Emergency staffing protocol is in effect for FA’s requiring A Doctors note for all Sick calls.

    In many Airports the TSA is really struggling with staffing too, so things are back to normal!

  8. At least part of the issues with American are due to continued bad weather here in the DFW area. May is normally bad for storms but this year was ridiculous with day after day of storms.

    They had to divert flights on something like 10 or 12 different days, and on some the storms lasted hours and hours. On one occasion I was flying back from Albuquerque, and we had a 2 hour ground stop…then had a circle an hour em route…then on the ground it was lightning and we were stuck on tarmac with the ramp closed almost two more hours. It’s just been that way this year.

    It also affected Southwest at Love, and also at Hobby and Austin and San Antonio also.

    Obviously it wasn’t the only issue but with 800 flights a day out of DFW, it doesn’t take much here to jack up the rest of their network.

    1. Speaking of Love, only having 1 available runway creates a nasty backup and lots of ATC traffic management plans and ultimately delays if there is even a hint of weather. Given the Southwest model of plans bouncing all across the country, it wouldn’t be too far off to say 20-25% of their planes touch DAL at some point in the day and cascading down the line if there is a delay?

      Why Love Field couldn’t have done the runway replacement last year is still baffling.

      But seeing the long lines of planes coming into both DFW and DAL on a daily basis, snaking around the north texas sky, and you can see how it can impact.

  9. JetBlue, my favorite airline BY FAR is in trouble. The are cancelling people’s flights without any notice. Their website is so troubled that it is selling tickets to people, including giving them confirmation numbers, but the tickets aren’t real. Sadly, people don’t know until they try to check in for a flight. JetBlue is selling tickets on AM flights then secretly changing them to red-eye flights without notifying customers, even though people have signed up for email and text messages. As I type, the wait to speak to a LIVE PERSON is over NINE HOURS LONG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    They are my favorite airline, but they are consistently messing with my flights and not informing me. And I have doubts that they are going to be reliable if they are this bad when winter snow hits. It is so sad. It used to be jewel of an airline. Now I bite my nails wondering if my next flight is going to fly at all.

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