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The Real Deal With Airline On-Time Statistics

(October 8, 2002)

Airline passengers waiting in long security lines can at least look forward to fewer flight delays. According to the latest Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, nearly 83 percent of domestic flights were on time in August, up from 74 percent a year earlier. Reduced flight schedules in the wake of September 11 have much to do with the improvement. Nevertheless, airlines live and die by their on-time performance; good customer service and marketing depends on it. What might surprise you is that the measuring methods used to collect flight data vary widely by airline.

DOT Measuring Stick

Information filed with the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) is compiled into an on-time performance database. Currently, the BTS tracks 10 airlines: Alaska, America West, American, American Eagle Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, United, and US Airways. According to the BTS, these airlines account for more than 90% of domestic operating revenues. Federal regulations require airlines who earn 1% or more of total domestic scheduled passenger revenue report their on-time performance data. While the BTS database covers the entire domestic system of the ten reporting airlines, regulations require them to only report operational statistics to and from the 29 largest airports. The airlines voluntarily report on the rest.

A flight is counted as "on time" if it operated less than 15 minutes after the scheduled time shown in the carriers' Computerized Reservations Systems (CRS). Cancelled and diverted operations are counted as late.
Airline On-Time Stats For August 2002

1-  US Airways—85.9%
2-  Delta — 84.6
3-  American — 83.5
4-  Continental — 83.3
5-  America West — 82.7
6-  United — 82.3
7-  Northwest — 81.8
8-  Southwest — 81.5
9-  American Eagle — 79.7
10- Alaska — 76.0

Airlines: Manual vs. Automated Reporting

Reporting airlines use automated or manual systems or a combination of both to collect flight data. Those using an automated system rely on the computerized Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). Those using manual reporting rely solely on their pilots, gate agents or ground crews to record times manually. Some use a combination of both ACARS and manual reporting systems. Based on the latest information available to the DOT here are the systems used by the 10 reporting airlines:

  • ACARS: American, Continental, Northwest, United, US Airways.
  • Manual: Southwest.
  • Combination ACARS/Manual: Alaska, America West, American Eagle, Delta.

Fuzzy Methods?

In a recent Time magazine interview, Continental's CEO Gordon Bethune called non-automated reporting "cocktail napkin record keeping" and considers it to be "suspect." Indeed, for the past several years manually reporting Southwest Airlines has held the crown as the nation's most punctual airline. It's interesting to note, the top on-time carrier for August was US Airways, who uses ACARS exclusively; Southwest was eighth. Southwest continues to decline in on-time performance as it has not taken the monthly top spot yet this year, though they have been second twice. What's more surprising is the carrier had four of the ten worst chronically late flights for the month of August, including two of the top five!

While manual reporting is much easier to fudge with, ACARS is not. Still, airlines using ACARS don't use the same methods, which can make it suspect as well. ACARS automatically sends "in", "out", "on", and "off" signals, how and when the signal is sent depends upon how the airline programs the system to function. As an example for "in" times, some carriers program signals to be sent when the engines are shut down and parking brakes are set, others when brakes are set and a door is opened, and a few when engines are shut down and a door (cabin or cargo) is opened. The on-time race can get competitive, especially if a company memo is sent to the troops. Aircraft doors can be opened a little early, or cockpit circuit breakers can be re-set to fool with the system, thus saving precious minutes in the quest to be on-time king.

Related Links

Department of Air Travel Consumer Report

U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics

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