On-time airline improvements continue, third month in a row

Airlines in the United States posted an improved on-time performance rate in April relative to the same month the year prior – stretching their streak to three. The 19 largest airlines were on time 79.1 percent of the time in April 2009, compared to 77.7 percent in April 2008. The industry also performed better than it did in March 2009, showing a month-to-month improvement from 78.4 percent. An on-time arrival is defined as being within 15 minutes of the scheduled time … which has already been buffered comfortably by the airlines.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 7.4 percent of April delays resulted from aviation system issues. Late-arriving aircraft caused 6.2 percent, and factors within the airline’s control (e.g., maintenance or crew problems) accounted for 4.8 percent. Extreme weather and security together didn’t even account for 1 percent of delays. The most delayed flight was Northwest Airlines Flight 803 from Atlanta to Honolulu. It was late 97 percent of the time.

The DOT also found that:

  • Cancellation rates improved to 1.5 percent in April 2009 – from 1.7 percent in April 2008 and 2.1 percent in 2009.
  • Nearly 50 flights had taxi-time waits of greater than three hours
  • Mishandled baggage rates improved to 3.79 per 1,000 from 4.99 in April 2008 and 4.12 in March 2009

Customers complained to the DOT 781 times about airline service, compared to 1,112 in April 2008. But, it was up from the 705 the previous month.

So, the airlines are generally posting some positive numbers – Fight 803 notwithstanding. Why? Are we looking at a vast improvement across an entire industry … an industry that clearly can’t afford to invest in doing a better job?

Let’s not go crazy, here.

The airlines are doing a better job because they don’t have to deal with as many people. Fewer asses are occupying seats, which eases the burden of boarding passengers, pushing back on time and keeping track of their luggage. Ironically, success is the path to failure, as selling more seats would give airlines an operational burden they’ve proved they’re ill-equipped to handle.

March a good month for on-time arrivals

We all love to hate the airlines, and on-time arrivals are among our largest gripes. There’s nothing worse (well, within reason) than seeing the toe-tapping that comes with the disgruntled looks of people waiting to pick you up … it’s not like they had to spend endless hours on the runway or circling LaGuardia. Well, in March, they weren’t as bad.

The 19 largest airlines in the country reported an improved rate of on-time flights compared to March 2008, according to some data from the Feds. Well, the bar wasn’t set very high. On-time results for March 2008 were 71.6 percent, according to the Department of Transportation‘s Bureau of Transportation Statistics and reached 78.4 percent this year. Before you get too excited, it’s down from 82.6 percent in February.

So, what does all this mean? Airlines were late almost a quarter of the time, and that includes the padding applied to routes. Aviation analyst Michael Boyd says that a flight from Binghamton, NY to New York City is scheduled for an hour and 15 minutes – not the 45 minutes it takes.

Aviation system delays were responsible for 7.3 percent of delays, with late arrivals from other planes kicking in another 6.5 percent. Factors within airlines’ control were responsible for almost 5 percent delays.

Extreme weather? A mere 0.62 percent.