Airline Operations Settle Down as Fewer Flights Take the Skies


Considering how little attention airlines have gotten from the media lately, you probably assumed that operations had improved dramatically… and you’d be right. With fewer flights operating, things are getting back toward normal, but we still aren’t there yet, and some airlines are doing better than others.

For the high level view, I turned to masFlight, as usual.

Flights and Completion Factor by Airline 2021-2022

Data via masFlight

The green in the background shows the number of flights tracked by masFlight (effectively, the number scheduled) for all of the tracked airlines combined. That includes the Big Four, the three tweeners (Alaska, Hawaiian, and JetBlue), and the four ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs). The lines show the individual completion factor (percentage of flights actually operated) by airline.

You can see where the operations really fall off the cliff in December. This is when the weather first hit Seattle, and it all got ugly, very quickly. We’ve covered this ground before, so I won’t rehash it, but last time I wrote about this was just a few days into January, and now we can look at the post-holiday period.

During the winter holidays, these 11 airlines peaked on December 23 with 22,357 flights planned. January 2 and 3 were not far behind. But then it started to come down. From January 4 through January 26, only 6 days were scheduled over 21,000 (and just barely). Further, 12 didn’t even reach 20,000. So this is a very real cut.

With the exception of January 16 and 17 when weather mucked everything up, the airlines have been consistently over 90 percent. I should also point out that when weather did hit on those days, it did not take long for the airlines to recover. This is how it should work, of course Normally, however, reaching 90 percent consistently should be nothing to crow about. But these days — between Omicron, pilot shortages, and yes, 5G — well, the bar has been lowered… just a bit.

When we start to look at the airlines individually, we do see some real divergence here. In the most recent 23 days of January, I looked at each airline to see how many days operated with a completion factor below 95 percent, above 99 percent, or in between. And here’s the answer:

Days by Completion Factor Range January 4 – 26

Data via masFlight

First of all, kudos to Sun Country which barely canceled a flight at all. Yes, it is a small airline, but that’s still a great result. And hey, same goes for Spirit which has really, impressively stepped up. It even beat Delta using this particular metric, and that is really what you want to see from a ULCC. If a ULCC flight gets delayed, that’s one thing, but if it’s canceled, that’s a whole different level of pain because so few other options exist.

Frontier is in the middle of the pack on that effort, but Allegiant is, well, not good. Really, Allegiant hasn’t been able to get its act together operationally in months. This is actually a pretty good result compared to what we’ve seen during other time periods, but it’s really not acceptable for an airline that operates on routes where there just aren’t other options more often than not.

Outside of ULCC land, there are two that really stand out, and not in a good way. Alaska and United have had a very bad go of things. Do keep in mind that this includes mainline and regional flying, but United’s performance is particularly embarrassing since it spent so much time crowing about how it was going to run a great operation through the holidays. I didn’t point it out in the chart, but United had 6 days where it didn’t even reach 90 percent completion. This is not good.

And as for Alaska, well, Alaska has just have a really rough go of it lately.

Alaska Airlines 2022 Completion Factor By Day

Data via masFlight

Alaska did get skewed downward at the beginning of the period, because its operation was in such poor shape, but then it reacted and took departures down by about 10 percent. You can see an instant and dramatic improvement from about January 11 on, but it is still not reliably where it should be.

This isn’t actually much different than United’s trajectory, but with Alaska being so proactive, I figured we’d see a quicker recovery. Then again, we do know that Alaska was impacted harder than many by the 5G issues since it had to scrub its whole operation at Paine Field for a time since the visibility was too low for its Embraer 175s to be allowed to fly. There’s just a lot hitting that airline right now.

We are now at the point where airlines should have their operational houses in order. Yes, there are pilot issues, but it should be possible to better predict how this is going to go for them, especially with Omicron starting to wane. Sure, there will always be winter storms to mess things up, but that’s the kind of normal everyone is currently craving. It’s what happens in between those storms that’s so different right now.

4 comments on “Airline Operations Settle Down as Fewer Flights Take the Skies

  1. It’s possible United proactively canceled flights at passenger’s request once they saw they were connecting through Newark.

  2. The period between post New Year & Presidents Day is always non-rev & upgrade paradise as early Q1 loads drop but this year it’s REALLY lean. I’m working 737-9s and 320s between core markets with 30% load factors or less. Even sun destinations are going out less than 50% full. And TATL loads are abysmal and cargo is way off too.

    Not as stark as 2020 but, absent bad weather, we are having no problems turning empty planes.

  3. I believe Southwest admitted today that they have canceled 5,500 flights already this month. That’s about 200 cancellations per DAY

  4. Not giving United a pass at all but if we put things into perspective this was United Airlines first meltdown of this entire pandemic. Delta, American, Southwest, Spirit have all had multiple operational meltdowns during this pandemic. I agree United should have known they wouldn’t escape the pandemic without a meltdown but if we look at how airlines have operated throughout this entire pandemic United has run one of the most consistent operations although they did have to eat a huge slice of humble pie over this past holiday travel period.

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