Skift Take

People love to hate airlines. But U.S. carriers have gotten a lot more reliable in the past two years, and that's definitely good for passengers.

U.S. airlines canceled fewer flights and lost fewer bags in November than in any month in more than two decades, according to a new government report.

The nation’s 12 largest airlines canceled 0.29 precent of flights in November, the lowest rate since the government started tracking monthly cancellations in 1995. Meanwhile, the carriers mishandled 2.02 bags per 1,000 passengers, their fewest since at least 1987, when the government started monitoring baggage.

For its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, the Department of Transportation ranks the 10 U.S. airlines that fly large jets — all except Allegiant Air, which does not earn enough revenue to qualify — as well as two regional carriers, ExpressJet and SkyWest.

Some of flight cancelations is luck, with airlines operating more flights as planned when the weather is better. But many U.S. airlines have made operational reliability a priority in the past couple of years, a strategy that appears to be paying dividends.

In November, the government said Delta Air Lines did not cancel any flights, which is no surprise, considering the airline went 241 days last year without a cancelation, a figure that does not include flights operated by its regional partners. Delta takes on-time performance so seriously it has trademarked the phrase, “The On-Time Machine.”

Alaska Airlines and Frontier Airlines each canceled only 0.1 percent of flights in November, though Alaska’s 2016 on-time performance was considerably stronger than Frontier’s. While Frontier seeks to avoid canceling flights, it’s still among the nation’s least punctual airlines, with only 77.1 percent of its flights in the first 11 months of 2016 arriving within 14 minutes of schedule. For the same period, 88.1 percent of Alaska’s flight arrived on time.

ExpressJet had the highest rate of cancelations, at 0.9 percent. It operates as United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection. SkyWest, which also flies for all three major airlines, as well as Alaska, canceled 0.7 percent of flights.

It is no surprise the two regional carriers cancel more flights than their large airline partners. During periods of bad weather, United, Delta and American often ask their regional airlines to cancel flights to allow more room at airports for larger jets.

For baggage, Virgin America had the lowest mishandled bag rate, at 0.96 per thousand passengers, with Alaska (1.14) second and Delta (1.23) third. ExpressJet lost the most bags, at 3.16 per thousand passengers, followed by Frontier, at 3.09.

The baggage rates, however, can be misleading, as they do not measure airlines based on the overall number of passengers they carry, rather than the bags they handle. On some airlines, passengers check more bags, while on others, they check fewer.

In November, the dozen airlines also posted a combined on-time arrival rate of 86.5 percent, up one percentage point from October. Here is how they ranked:

Rank Airline Rate
1 Hawaiian Airlines 91.5 percent
2 Delta Air Lines 91.4 percent
3 Alaska Airlines 88.0 percent
4 Frontier Airlines 87.5 percent
5 Spirit Airlines 86.4 percent
6 United Airlines 86.1 percent
7 Southwest Airlines 86.1 percent
8 American Airlines 85.4 percent
9 SkyWest Airlines 85.2 percent
10 JetBlue Airways 84.3 percent
11 ExpressJet 82.8 percent
12 Virgin America 81.4 percent

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Tags: american airlines, delta air lines, united airlines

Photo credit: All U.S. airlines are improving in operational reliability, but Delta remains the most consistent major U.S. carrier. Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

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