Skift Take

Airline consolidation may have led to higher airfares and fewer flights, but the perhaps unintended consequence is that the percentage of flight delays in December are trending much lower now.

How late will you be home for the holidays this year? Despite the perpetual worry and pessimism around holiday travel, airlines have generally been doing a better job with making their schedule, according to historical data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. To make sense of the data, we crunched the BTS’s numbers for the last nine years and sought insight from experts to see what was behind the positive trend.

Historical December performance

The graph below shows the percentage of December nonstop flights within the U.S. in the years 2003-2011 that were delayed 15 minutes or longer.

Of the seven airlines analyzed, JetBlue had the highest percentage (23.3%) of December flight delays over the nine-year period, while Southwest had the lowest percentage (17.7%).

The following were the historical December flight-delay woes of the other five airlines:

  • American Airlines (22%)
  • American Eagle (21.6%)
  • United (20.9%)
  • US Airways (19.8%)
  •  Delta (19.53%)

Note: The data does not include the small percentage of flights that were diverted or canceled.

JetBlue’s challenging holiday seasons

So if you were flying JetBlue in December over the last nine years, there was nearly a one-in-four chance that your flight would be delayed.

JetBlue attributes much of its flight-delay challenges to the fact that nearly 71% of its flights operate in and out of heavily flown Boston Logan, JFK, LaGuardia and Newark, where weather and air-traffic control problems can ripple through its schedules.

“We know we have room to improve with on-time performance, and that’s something we’re working on with the help of our 14,500 crewmembers on each and every flight,” says Mateo Lleras, a JetBlue spokesperson.

Lleras says JetBlue’s use of the NextGen navigational system “proved beneficial post-Sandy as traditional navigational aids were damaged or decommissioned yet we were still able to operate.”

Over the recent Thanksgiving travel period, JetBlue posted an 84.9% on-time performance record.

JetBlue has taken a lot of flack over flight and tarmac delays in recent years.

In an episode it would rather forget, JetBlue apologized in December 2007 when passengers faced extensive tarmac delays at JFK, including one of 11 hours, as a snowstorm caused operational and public relations nightmares.

In that intemperate December 2007, 31.8% of JetBlue’s flights were delayed, but United (39.4%), American (37.7%) and American Eagle (37.7%) fared even worse.

Southwest making adjustments

Southwest attributes its best-in-class performance to its route network and the adjustments it can make.

“We fly a different type of schedule than the other carriers,” says Brandy King, a Southwest spokesperson. “Since we are not truly hub and spoke, weather has less of an impact on our on-time performance. For instance, if there are winter storms in the northeast, the New York and Washington airports might see delays which will trickle over into our big station, Baltimore Washington, but with a point-to-point system we have more of an opportunity to isolate the airport, avoiding significant impact to other locations.”

Severe 2010-2011 winter, and spring 2011, weather led to Southwest’s on-time performance “lagging a bit due to the challenges, King says.

“The winter weather in 2011 going into 2012 was mild, so network investment coupled with mild winter weather equaled a good on-time performance for us in 2011,” King adds.

Airlines are getting better at meeting expectations

You can see from the chart that the seven airlines’ overall track record in flight delays — especially since 2007 — has been trending downward and improving.

There are a variety of factors, ranging from airline mismanagement to labor unrest and Mother Nature, that lead to flight delays.

Milder than usual temperatures in the Northeast, Midwest and South in December 2011 undoubtedly contributed to all of the seven airlines beating their nine-year flight-delay averages.

For example, American Airlines’ average amount of flight delays in December over the nine years was 22%, but in December 2011 its incidence of flight delays came in at 16.5%.

US Airways’ nine-year average of 19.8% fell to just 11.6% in December 2011.

Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare, believes that weather and its focal airports are a big factor in JetBlue’s poor numbers.

“Certainly JFK and the Northeast being the focal point of JetBlue makes them susceptible to weather issues and the general slot delays around metro NYC,” Seaney says.

Seaney notes that Southwest “doesn’t have much lift in the Northeast corridor,” and its point-to-point routes gives it some protection from “cascading flight delays around hub and spoke airlines.”

Delta’s delay numbers, Seaney argues, may have skewed higher because of its merger with Northwest and its inherent complexities.

Why it’s getting better

Airfarewatchdog’s George Hobica believes that airline mergers, more profitable airlines, reductions in the number of flights, and two-year-old tarmac-delay prohibitions all have contributed to the relative nosedive in flight delays over the years.

“The skies are less crowded,” Hobica says, adding “a healthier airline industry enables them to concentrate on the niceties, and you can consider a carrier’s on-time record a nicety.”

If you think the checked-bag fee frenzy, which finds passengers scampering for overhead bin space, would contribute to an increase in flight delays, Hobica says some airlines, such as American on its Boeing 767s, are installing larger overhead bins to clear the logjam, and airlines generally may be allowing more time for boarding.

In addition to healthier airlines getting more adept at managing flight delays, they are also cooking the books, so to speak, by adding time to their schedules.

“They are building more wiggle room into their schedules,” Hobica says.

In addition, some airlines improve their numbers by pushing flight cancellations and delays to their regional feeders, which are not required to report their statistics.

In sum, there’s a good chance your flight can be delayed during the holiday travel season, although the airlines are getting better in reducing the incidences.

Lastly, from a flight-passenger perspective: hope for some good weather.


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Tags: holidays, Travel Trends

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