September’s Operational Performance Was Great, Though Some Airlines Are Padding To Make That Happen

It’s no secret the Fall weather (short of an errant hurricane) makes for the best flying weather. And this September was no exception. Every big airline in the US had more than 80 percent of flights arrive on time (except Spirit, which was close). Delta’s mainline operation passed 90 percent and canceled almost no flights. But digging into the data, we can see that not all airlines are running efficiently. Some (*cough* United *cough*) are padding to improve arrival times.

I dug into data to get the details. Let’s start by looking at marketing carrier statistics. In other words, we’ll look at arrivals within 14 minutes (DOT’s metric of choice) by brand, including all regional carriers. (I’ve included US Airways in American’s numbers.)

September On Time Performance By Marketing Carrier

Take a look at those numbers. Very impressive. What stands out? With the exception of American, nobody canceled more than 1 percent of flights in the month. That is fantastic. And wait, is that Southwest at number one for on time arrivals?!? We haven’t seen that in ages.

While we’re here, take a look at Frontier. It canceled very few flights and was toward the top in on-time performance. Even Allegiant did well for itself. Spirit? Well those numbers would be good in any other month, but as usual, the on-time performance lagged everyone else.

Now this may be what matters most to people who choose an airline, but it’s fun to dig into the details further to see what kind of patterns might emerge. Let’s look at the big guys.

We saw that American canceled a higher percentage of flights than anyone, but where did that come from? Mainline ran just above 99.5 percent, so it was the regionals that brought things down with only 98.1 percent completed. Republic with all of its staffing problems brought the average down, but so did Piedmont and Trans States. This wasn’t just due to a single operator. It could reflect a scheduling issue.

On-time performance for mainline was just above 85 percent. Most of the regionals did a respectable job… except for Trans States which ran only 68.7 percent on time. That is awful. Everyone else was in the realm of respectability.

It’s hard to explain just how good of an operation Delta is running right now. Its completion percentage was good, but when you look at just mainline? It was nearly 100 percent. Seriously. Of the more than 83,000 mainline flights in September, less than 50 canceled. That’s a 99.95 percent completion. Amazing. Oh, and on-time performance? Mainline alone ran 90.3 percent of flights on time, blowing away anyone else.

What’s interesting is that Delta’s regionals stepped up as well, running more than 85 percent on time. GoJet, owned by Trans States, didn’t crack 70 percent. On the other end, Republic’s Shuttle America subsidiary actually did well. It operated 99.2 percent of flights and 84.6 percent were on time. Considering , this seems puzzling. I’m guessing that Republic said it couldn’t operate some flights far in advance so they were removed from the schedule.

Looking at the regionals, Republic is the standout screw-up here. Only 92.8 percent of its flights operated. Yikes. Perennial cellar-dweller CommutAir surprised me. It had 98.6 percent of flights go, with 81.9 percent of those arriving on time. But let’s dig in to mainline.

United actually did well on the surface last month. Mainline had 99.6 percent of flights operate with 85.9 percent running on time. But something didn’t smell quite right.

Take a look at this chart comparing on-time departures to on-time arrivals (exactly on-time, not within 14 minutes).

On Time Departures vs Arrivals

As you can see, both Delta and US Airways get airplanes off the gate on-time quite often. But that’s where things diverge. Delta has an even higher percentage of flights arriving on-time while US Airways sees a big drop. That tells me that US Airways may be scheduling its block times too tightly. Loosen those up and US Airways could be back at the top. Airplanes are ready to go on time, and that’s the basis for a good operation.

Notably, American’s departure performance is coming up significantly and passed 70 percent. It saw a higher on-time arrival rate. This makes me think that the management team is putting more slack into the American system until it can perform on the same level as the US Airways system, though they may need to meet somewhere in between. But the trends look pretty good.

Southwest, however, looks different. It had a harder time getting airplanes off the gate but was able to make up a lot of time in the air. Southwest appears to be putting slack into its system in order to improve its performance. That works, but it’s costly.

Then look at United. It was absolutely awful at getting airplanes off the gate on-time, a full 10 points even behind American and 5 behind Southwest. But look how much time it makes up in the air. It looks like United has put a ton of slack into its system. That’s inefficient and despite all that effort, United has only been able to get into the middle of the pack.

The end result? From an operational perspective, Delta and American are doing a good job of having their airplanes ready to go on time more often, though American probably needs to adjust its schedules to improve arrival performance. United and Southwest, on the other hand, aren’t ready to go as often and have added a bunch of padding to mask that. As a traveler, that’s fine since you’re still getting there on time. But it’s not efficient and it is costly. They both need to improve.

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