Even With Travel Volume Cut By More Than Half U.S. Airlines Still Struggle To Operate On Time - Forbes

Even With Travel Volume Cut By More Than Half U.S. Airlines Still Struggle To Operate On Time - Forbes

If you were hoping that carrying 60% fewer passengers during 2020’s historic collapse of air travel demand because of Covid-19 would at least allow airlines to work on getting their monumental on-time and other operational problems fixed, prepare to be disappointed.

First, there is a bit of good news. According to year-end data just published by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airlines continued in virus-impacted 2020 to be lots better about getting their flights in “on time” than they were for years and years from the late 1990s through the first half of the 2010s. During that long sojourn through operational dismality, most carriers struggled to stay above the 75% official “on time” mark. And though no official data is kept for “actual” airline on time performance – which would exclude the 15-minute grace period the U.S. Department of Transportation grants them before even declaring a flight that’s actually late is “officially late” – some carriers perennially threatened falling below the 60% actual one time.

But the bad news is still significantly bad, especially in light of the 60% decline in the number of passengers carried last year vs. 2019, when coronavirus had no impact on travel demand. Last year U.S. airlines managed to bring in 84.5% of their flights in “on time,” meaning that they arrived at their arrival gates no more than 14 minutes and 59 seconds after their published scheduled arrival times. In 2019, they did that only 78.97% of that time.

So, why does an airline’s official “on time,” or its actual on time performance matter. For starters, travelers schedule what they can and cannot get done after arriving at their destination based on their scheduled arrival times. Arriving late then can, and often does disrupt those plans. And in many cases, because airlines’ on time performance has been at times notoriously bad, business travelers especially have learned to book an extra night away from home to protect themselves from the possibility of missing an important meeting when a morning flight arrives late. Thus, not only is airline on time performance a nuisance and a worry to many travelers, it forces business travelers in particular into spending more money on their travel and spending more time away from home.

Airlines’ chronically poor “on time” performance long has been an issue that consumers experience intensely yet seemingly have come to accept as normal. However, virtually no other industry in American get away with anything close to the level of product defect that airlines get away with regularly. Though there are obvious differences in the severity and costs, comparisons to the quality standards in other industries do effectively illustrate how big the airline industry’s on time, product defect rate really is. For example, a 15% defect rate in the making of bread would be equal to more than four slices of every loaf being moldy upon opening. A 15% defect rate in the manufacture of Ford F series trucks would be equal to 150,000 of those popular vehicles a year being delivered to buyers with serious enough defects to warrant a recall. A 15% defect in the acceptance of bank debit cards at points of sale around the world would result in around 1 billion transactions being denied around the globe every day. Yet last year’s 15.5% defect rate for airlines – effectively the reverse of a 84.5% “on time” arrival rate – ranks as one of the industry’s best performances in that regard since such data has been tracked.


Beyond the inefficiency that poor on time performance highlights, bad on time performance adds significant costs to airlines’ operations. Large airlines with 500 to 900 planes fly the same schedule with dozens fewer expensive planes – and thousands fewer employees – if they operated consistently above the 90% on time mark. They also could gain market share from carriers with worse on time performance records as consumers – especially higher fare-paying business travelers – opt to fly on carriers that have better schedule reliability.

Late flight operations tend to ripple through a carrier’s entire operation, making subsequent flights aboard that same plane late all day long, and creating hundreds, even thousands of missed passenger flight connections, each of which can cost the airline money in food and lodging vouchers, re-scheduling costs, employee overtime and other expenses.

Now, perhaps that 5.53 percentage point improvement in U.S. carriers’ average “on time” performance should be applauded in light of the uniquely and massively troubled year they had in 2020. But somehow it seems rather underwhelming given that carriers had not handled such a small number of passengers since 1984 – 36 years earlier.

A total of 368 million passengers boarded U.S. planes in 2020, down 557.5 million passenger from the more than 925.5 million people who boarded U.S. planes in 2019. Yet those airlines could only manage to improve their pathetically watered-down “official” on time arrival performance by a measly 5.5 percentage points?

Okay, they also were dealing the resulting financial crisis and the turmoil of needing to lay off more than 100,000 people industrywide. So, maybe some understanding should be shown, right? Except that most of those “lay-offs” actually have yet to happen, at least officially. The federal government has given U.S. carriers $40 billion in grants so far – yesterday their chief lobbyist begged for $14 billion more to be included in the current $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package being debated in Congress – supposedly to cover the cost of keeping most of those workers on their payrolls since carriers implanted sweeping schedule cuts last Spring.

So, do you think maybe some of those otherwise unneeded-but-paid-for workers could have been used to help airlines operate more for their flights “on time” – or maybe even really on time?

To be fair, not every airline is as terrible at operating on-time as are the worst offenders. At the top of that list – or, more appropriately, at the bottom of it – in 2020 was Allegiant Air, which somehow managed to bring in only 71.33% of its flights “one time” last year, down dramatically from an already not very good 78.73% in 2019.  In 2019, Allegiant, the smallest of the “major” airlines and a so-called Ultra-Low Cost Carrier that focuses on serving the most price sensitive of leisure travelers, ranked 7th in “on time” performance.

Second worst among the 10 major carriers ranked for “on time” performance in 2020 by the BTS, a unit of the Transportation Department, was JetBlue. It got 82.14 of its flights in “on time” last year. That’s a nearly 9 percentage point improvement from its 73.5% “on time” performance in 2019, but that wasn’t nearly enough to push it out of ninth place, which is were ranked on this same list a year earlier.

Third worst on this most unimpressive list of “on time” airlines last year was giant American, the biggest carrier of them all. It operated 1,311,462 million scheduled flights last year (245,000 more than Delta, 350,000 more than Southwest CSWC , and 1.2 million more than Allegiant). Yet, American managed to operate just 82.32% of its flights on time last year, up just under 5 percentage points from 2019 when it operated 2,111,039, or 39.9% more scheduled flights.

At the other, better-but-still-not-great end of this sad list, was Hawaiian Airlines. It brought 87.5% of its flights in “on time” in 2020, which was actually a slight decline from its 87.72% “on time” performance in 2019. Hawaiian has a built in advantage in that its primary region of operation – the islands that make up the 50th state – have the best flying weather in the nation. Bad weather historically has been assigned responsibility for about 5% of all officially late flights over a year’s time. Also for the last nearly 10 months of 2020 other airlines effectively were locked out of serving Hawaii by the state’s Covid-19 quarantine rules that all-but shut down air travel between the islands and the mainland states. Thus, any positive impact on their “on time” performance that might have come from their flights to, from and within Hawaii effectively was lost.

Delta ranked second in “on-time” performance last year with a 87.2% performance, up a modest 3.74 percentage points from 83.46 in 2020 on a 35.5% drop in the number of scheduled flights it operated in 2020.

Furthermore, the data indicates that while the total number of scheduled flights among the 10 biggest carriers 37.9% from 2019 to 2020, those planes that did fly last year were markedly less full than in 2020.

Airlines For America CEO Nicholas Calio, told U.S. House Transportation Committee members on Tuesday that member carriers of his organization, also known as A4A, saw their passenger totals drop 60%, year over year, in 2020. In theory, loading fewer passengers on flights should reduce boarding and de-boarding times, plus the time it takes to load and unload baggage, thereby increasing carriers’ ability to operate their flights on time. That makes the relatively small improvements in “on time” performance by most U.S. carriers last year even less impressive.