Airline industry best and worst of April 2011

airline industryThe most recent U.S. Department of Transportation data is out, and it’s time for the airlines to brace themselves. The good, the bad and the ugly can be discerned from the data, and numbers are notoriously poor at showing excuses (I mean, “underlying reasons”).

So, let’s start with what looks good. Hawaiian Airlines is most likely to get you to your destination on time, leading U.S. carriers with a 94.1 percent arrival rate. It’s followed by Alaska Airlines at 89.5 percent and AirTran Airways at 82 percent.

At the bottom of the barrel, for on-time arrivals, are ExpressJet Airlines (68 percent), JetBlue (68.4 percent) and Atlantic Southeast Airlines (68.5 percent). Think about it, a third of the time, these airlines won’t arrive on time.

Overall, the airline industry posted an average on-time arrival rate of 75.5 percent. This means that a quarter of the time, they miss the mark. It’s almost as easy as being a weather man!The dubious distinction of having the longest tarmac delay was United Airlines flight 19 from JFK to San Francisco. On April 24, 2011, it sat on the tarmac for a whopping 202 minutes. It was tied by Delta flight 1076 from Atlanta to Salt Lake City only three days later. On the same day that flight 1076’s passengers grew restless, Delta flight 1714 (Atlanta to Ontario, CA), sat on the tarmac for 200 minutes. Twins!

Delta owned three of the four longest tarmac delays of the month – and only four flights had delays of longer than three hours. The remaining flight was Delta flight 823 from Atlanta to Ft Lauderdale, also on April 27. It sat on the tarmac for 185 minutes.

According to Google Maps, it takes 10 hours to drive from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale. Just sayin’.

If you flew American Eagle, your flight was most likely to get canceled: it posted a cancelation rate of 5.1 percent. Following were ExpressJet (3.8 percent) and Atlantic Southeast (3.7 percent). You were better off flying Hawaiian Airlines, which posted a tiny cancelation rate of 0.1 percent. Frontier (0.2 percent) and Continental (0.5 percent) also posted solid stats on this metric.

[photo by Brett L. via Flickr]

ExpressJet pilot refuses body scan, puts privacy over safety?

ExpressJet Airlines pilot Michael Roberts wasn’t at all interested in getting a body scan, and now he’s wondering how long he’ll have his job.

Roberts was selected to be scanned at Memphis International Airport last Friday. He refused. He was offered a pat-down. He refused that, too. Then, he went home, according to an Associated Press report.

The pilot says he doesn’t want to be “harassed or molested without cause.” Meanwhile, the TSA is citing “federal security procedures,” the Associated Press reports.

How do you feel about this? Is Roberts some kind of obstinate nut? Or, does he have a real point about privacy in the workplace? Drop a comment below, and let us know.

[photo by quinn.anya via Flickr]

DoT gives airlines $175,000 reminder ahead of Thanksgiving

Three airlines just scored a first with the U.S. government: they were fined for leaving passengers in the lurch. Continental Airlines, ExpressJet (a Continental affiliate) and Mesaba (part of Delta) racked up a total punishment of $175,000 when their combined efforts left fliers on a plane in Minnesota for six hours.

Continental and ExpressJet were slapped with a fine of $100,000, while Mesaba was nailed for $75,000, according to the Department of Transportation.

With the busiest travel day of the year right around the corner, the timing couldn’t have been better. Airlines that let their guards down could face stiff fines. And, let’s face it: these airlines can’t afford peanuts, let alone five- and six-figure fines.

On August 8, 2009, 47 passengers were stuck on a Continental Express plane, which was diverted to Rochester, Minnesota (the original plan was Houston to Minneapolis), where they were forced to spend the night. ExpressJet operated the flight, while Mesaba, the only airline working the airport, refused to let passengers leave the plane.

Rochester tarmac delay: “lack of common sense”

“There was a complete lack of common sense here,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in a statement released yesterday. “It’s no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated.”

When 47 passengers were stranded overnight on the tarmac in Rochester, Minnesota, the pilot repeatedly asked for permission to deplane them. All the pilot wanted was to get the passengers off the plane.

Airline dispatchers refused, because TSA officials had left for the day … and not realizing that the passengers could be released to a “sterile” area. Passengers on the ExpressJet flight (which it operated for Continental) were stuck in the plane for close to six hours with nothing to eat but pretzels.

The pilot clearly advocated for his passengers and deserves the endless respect of anyone who’s been stuck on a plane. LaHood recognizes this fact, saying, “We have determined that the Express Jet crew was not at fault. In fact, the flight crew repeatedly tried to get permission to deplane the passengers at the airport or obtain a bus for them,” Secretary LaHood said.

LaHood continues, “The local representative of Mesaba Airlines improperly refused the requests of the captain to let her passengers off the plane. The representative incorrectly said that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons, which led to this nightmare for those stuck on the plane.”

The representative of Mesaba, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines and was the only airline on hand to assist Continental at the airport, told the pilot that the airport was closed and that there was nobody from the TSA to screen the passengers. This was incorrect, as passengers can be released as long as they remain in what the Transportation Department calls a “sterile area.”

Interviews with the passengers, flight crew and airport personnel have been conducted by the Transportation Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office, and the team has reviewed the audio recordings of conversations between the plane and the dispatcher. And, Continental’s customer service commitment, contingency plan for flight delays and contract of carriage were reviewed, making this, according to LaHood, “one of the most thorough investigations ever conducted by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office.”

Pending the results of the investigation, the Aviation Enforcement Office is considering the appropriate action to take against Mesaba. The group expects the investigation to e finished in a few weeks.

The Transportation Department has proposed regulations requiring contingency plans for airlines to adopt to address lengthy delays on the tarmac. These plans would then be incorporated into their contracts of carriage. The department has also asked for comment on whether it should set a single time standard after which carriers would be required to allow passengers to deplane. The Transportation Department intends to use the results of the Rochester investigation to help formulate a final rule that will provide airline passengers with better protection.

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Few solutions offered for passengers trapped on plane overnight

Even Gilligan used his creative wits better in crisis.

The 47 people on-board a Continental flight last Friday night found themselves on their own “three-hour tour,” a la Gilligan’s Island. Rather than taking three hours to fly from Houston to the Twin Cities, they were stuck on the tarmac in Rochester, Minnesota for nine hours overnight, not even leaving the aircraft. The flight, operated by ExpressJet, had been diverted to Rochester because of thunderstorms in the Twin Cities.

Nine hours is a really long time, don’t you think?

One passenger told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “This was a sardine can, with a single row of seats on one side of the plane and two rows of seats on the other. And they’ve got about 50 people inside, including babies, for the whole night. It was a nightmare.”

The airline seems to have plenty of excuses, but few answers. Just a few: They couldn’t wait for the storm to pass because the crew had already reached their maximum work hours, and another crew had to be flown in. The passengers couldn’t just go into the airport, because they would have to undergo security screening, but the screeners had already gone home for the night. And the idea of at least letting passengers sleep on chairs in a certain area of the airport “wasn’t provided as an option.”

I’d be curious to know whether the passengers were throwing around the term “anarchy” after a few hours, or whether the original crew deplaned because they were at the end of their shift.

Poor, poor passengers. Rather than arriving in Minneapolis around midnight on Friday night, they eventually landed around 11 a.m. on Saturday morning.