Maybe airline service isn't as strong as most customers would like. But there's no mistaking the data. Operationally, many U.S. airlines are stronger than ever. That's good news for passengers who want to get to their destination on time.
U.S. airlines are canceling fewer flights than ever, and arriving on-time at nearly an historic rate, according to new government data released Friday.
The nation’s 12 largest airlines — a group that includes regional carriers ExpressJet and SkyWest Airlines — on average canceled just three of 1,000 domestic flights in November, tying a record set in September 2016 and November 2016.
In addition, the government said, the dozen airlines posted an on-time performance of 88.3 percent in November, the second-highest rate ever recorded. The government considers a flight on-time if it arrives within 14 minutes of its scheduled time.
Of the two metrics, cancellation rate is more impressive. Airlines can control on-time performance by padding schedules with the extra time. A flight from New York John F. Kennedy to Los Angeles a decade ago might have been scheduled for fewer than six hours, while today it may take 6 hours 30 minutes. The extra time helps an airline improve its punctuality, though the trip takes longer.
Some airlines play the extra time game more than others, with the Wall Street Journal reporting last year that, on average, Delta Air Lines schedules flights with five more minutes of padding than American Airlines.
Airlines have fewer tricks to avoid flight cancellations. Rather than using gimmicks to improve metrics, U.S. airlines, led by Delta, have made canceling fewer flights a priority.
On 242 days in 2017, Delta did not cancel a mainline flight. Also, on 90 days, it did not cancel a Delta flight or a Delta Connection flight. It’s an impressive streak, though, as The Points Guy noted recently, Delta occasionally delays a flight for 24 hours, a ploy that probably inconveniences customers as much as a cancellation.
United has also prioritized completion factor, going 59 days in 2017 without canceling a mainline flight, up from 21 in 2016.
According to government data, the worst larger U.S. airline for cancellations in November was Virgin America, at 1.3 percent. Next was Virgin America’s owner, Alaska Airlines, with a 0.9 percent cancellation rate.
Still, while the government cancellation statistics are impressive, the numbers would almost certainly be different if more than two regional airlines reported data.
During poor weather or when other operational problems crop up — like the December power outage at Atlanta’s Airport — big airlines almost always start by canceling regional flights at United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection.
But many of the regional carriers most likely to cancel, such as Envoy Air, Compass Airlines and Endeavor Air, do not report data. Carriers only must report if they account for at least 1 percent of total U.S. airline passenger revenue.
By most metrics, airlines are improving. In addition to better on-time and cancellation rates, carriers are also mishandling fewer bags. The rate for mishandled bags dropped from 2.04 per 1,000 passengers in October to 1.83 in November.
But overall complaints rose. For all airlines, foreign and domestic, the government said it received 1,299 complaints about airline service in November, an increase of 27.1 percent, year-over-year.
However, it seems the majority of extra complaints came from one incident involving Virgin Australia, which received 256 complaints, all but one about airfares.
In late October, Virgin Australia published a $172 roundtrip economy fare between Dallas and Melbourne. It later said the fare was a mistake, even though the economy fare, while cheap, wasn’t that much lower than sale fares airlines occasionally offer.
According toBen Schlappig, who writes the OneMileAtATime blog, Virgin Australia wanted as long as as nine days to cancel tickets, and many customers who bought the deal had already made non-refundable hotel reservations. In the comments section of his blog, many readers told Schlappig they planned to file complaints.
Here is the full DOT report, which comes out monthly.
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Photo credit: In November 2017, no U.S. airline cancelled fewer flights than Delta, which has trademarked the phrase, "The On-Time Machine." Delta Air Lines / Delta Air Lines