Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Southwest Airlines' on-time numbers collapse, as Delta Air Lines gets big win

Southwest Airlines plummeted to bottom of the pack in August in the on-time arrivals derby, as perennial frontrunner Delta Air Lines soared to a commanding — and I do mean commanding — victory among the four major domestic carriers, according to monthly results released today by airline data behemoth OAG.

Despite the horrors of last month's Hurricane Harvey, which disrupted Delta's operations less than it did United's, Delta finished August with an impressive 83.8 percent of flights arriving on time.

The United States Department of Transportation considers a flight to have arrived on time if it reaches the gate within 14 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.

Delta Air Line's stunningly good performance was nothing out of the ordinary for that airline.

But at Southwest, operational issues look to be dragging down the carrier's performance in a big way.

The low-fare behemoth finished August last among the big four with 70.5 percent of flights arriving on time. Southwest's monthly on-time percentages have been in the mid-70s for much of the first half of the year.

But that 70.5 percent is deceptive. For much of August — long before Harvey hit — Southwest's on-time arrival numbers were mired in the mid-60-percent range.

A Southwest Airlines spokesman had this to say today about the carrier's on-time performance in August: "While the Department of Transportation's official on-time performance data for August has not been published yet for our comment, we can separately confirm that Southwest experienced the effects of summer thunderstorms, the unprecedented impact of Hurricane Harvey and the high summer load factors across our network, which created operational performance challenges during the month."

Indeed, as I have witnessed on numerous occasions in recent months, Southwest often has problems turning its larger Boeing 737-800 aircraft in the allotted turn time, usually 40 to 50 minutes. The turn situation becomes more problematic in a hurry if a full Southwest 737-800 (seating 175) arrives late to the gate.

Plus Southwest crews scheduled to operate a flight are often late arriving from another flight — creating further delays. Add any kind of weather or mechanical issues to the mix, and the situation gets even worse.

As I documented six years ago, Southwest ran into major on-time arrival problems when it began adding many more connecting flights to its schedule and started holding planes for passengers who couldn't get to their connecting flights on time. It took a long while for Southwest to figure out and resolve that problem.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly and his team may need to take a long hard look at crew scheduling and Boeing 737-800 turn times if Southwest is to regain a consistently competitive posture in on-time performance. Southwest has its largest hub at Chicago's Midway Airport.

Meanwhile, American Airlines, which missed the worst of Harvey's wrath (not so with Irma this month, however), finished third with 76 percent of flights arriving on time.

And United Airlines, which definitely got the worst of Harvey, still finished August with a respectable 75.1 percent of flights making it to the gate on time.

United's Houston hub was shut down in late August for almost four days, which created a deep hole from which United began quickly to dig out of, to its credit.

Flight cancellations were up for all carriers with the notable exception of Delta, which cancelled only 0.9 percent of flights. United's Houston problems resulted in the cancellation of 5.5 percent of its flight schedule in August. American cancelled 2.1 percent of flights, and Southwest cancelled 2.8 percent.

(Lewis Lazare – Chicago Business Journal)

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