By Joe Brancatelli
May 10, 2007 -- The worst day of the month for business travelers is the day when the Transportation Department (DOT) releases its Air Travel Consumer Report. It is the monthly compilation of basic operational statistics for the nation's 20 largest carriers.

Monday was D-Day and the DOT figures for airline operations in March were, well, D for Dreadful. It makes you wonder how low the airlines can go--and how much business travelers will put up with before they start staying in the office because it no longer makes good business sense to fly. And it's an ugly harbinger for the summer, too.

As an industry, the 20 carriers covered by the Air Travel Consumer Report operated more than one in four flights late in March. Its 73.3 percent rating was more than four points worse than the 20-year average for airline timeliness. As an industry, airlines cancelled 2.6 percent of their flights. It recorded 7.71 reports of lost bags per 1,000 customers in March, about 25 percent worse than March, 2006. The best of this sorry lot were Hawaiian and Aloha, which each operated more than 90 percent of their respective flights on-time. Also notable: Denver-based Frontier Airlines, which operated 84.8 percent on-time. Frontier's performance contrasts with its local rival, United Airlines, which operated just 72.4 percent on-time systemwide and just 78.7 percent on-time in Denver. Southwest Airlines was the only other carrier to top 80 percent on-time.

In these days of reduced expectations and drastically curtailed service, it's very hard to snare the triple crown of Air Travel Consumer Report evil: worst on-time percentage, most mishandled luggage and most customer complaints. But give the boy wonders at US Airways a big hand. They came close in March. The airline's 55.5 percent on-time rating in March was 20th out of 20 carriers and trailed the industry average by almost 18 points. It finished 16th in mishandled bags, racking up 10.93 reports per 1,000 passengers in March. It was also dead last in customer complaints, racking up 2.63 complaints per 100,000 enplanements. The reason for this atrocious performance? US Airways chose March to botch a switchover to a new computer system. But let's be fair. The US Airways boy wonders were blindsided by their own egos. As one of their vice presidents boasted: "We get to demonstrate that these transitions aren't as big and as difficult as historically has been proclaimed."

US Airways' Philadelphia hub is a disaster in the best of times--Does US Airways even have best of times?--but it was a nightmare in March. Just 47.6 percent of its flights operated on-time there. And lord forbid that you took your kids to Orlando on US Airways in March. Industrywide, Orlando was about average for on-time performance in March (73.1 percent), but US Airways operated at just 43.4 percent there. US Airways was also a miserable gamble in Las Vegas (64.9 percent) and at its Charlotte hub (53.8 percent). Oh, and there is this: A startling 10.3 percent of US Airways' flights ran late 70 percent of the time or more in March. That was almost five times the industry average.

As the Big Six turn over more and more of their domestic route networks to commuter carriers, the regionals are collapsing under the strain. Five of the six commuters listed in the Air Travel Consumer Report--American Eagle, Mesa, Atlantic Southeast, ExpressJet and Comair--performed below the industry average for on-time performance. The mishandled baggage rates for the commuter carriers border on the cataclysmic. Compared to the 7.71 industry average, American Eagle racked up 14.28 reports per 1,000 passengers, followed closely by Comair (13.76), ExpressJet (11.92), Skywest (11.61), Mesa (10.16), Atlantic Southeast (9.18) and Pinnacle (8.54).

Now out of bankruptcy, Delta Air Lines will undoubtedly crow about its 79.7 percent on-time rating in March, the best of the Big Six. But remember: Delta has shifted more of its domestic flights to its regional carriers than any of the other Big Six and Delta's commuters (Comair, Atlantic Southeast and Mesa) are dreadful performers. And Delta's big New York/Kennedy international expansion continues to be an operational catastrophe. Delta itself ran just 60.2 percent on-time at JFK in March. Its JFK commuter feeders were even worse: Mesa was at 47.3 percent and Comair was at 48.6 percent.

Nationwide, 145 flights operated late at least 80 percent of the time in March. The most dreadful of them all: US Airways 2188, a shuttle flight between Washington/National and New York/LaGuardia. It operated late every time it flew in March with an average delay of 55 minutes. The 9 p.m. departure is scheduled for 66 minutes and the actual flying time on the 214-mile route is only around 44 minutes. But Flight 2188 wasn't alone: 11 of the 15 most-delayed flights in March were operated by the boy wonders at US Airways. (In fact, more than 40 percent of the 145 most-delayed flights belonged to US Airways.) Another flight to avoid: American Airlines 1659 from Newark to Chicago/O'Hare. It operated late 22 of the 26 times it flew in March and the average delay was 107 minutes. That's a neat trick for a flight that is scheduled to operate for just 105 minutes when you factor in the one-hour time difference between Newark and Chicago.

After the Valentine's Day massacre at its New York/Kennedy hub, JetBlue Airways promised to mend its ways in stormy weather. JetBlue crawled its way to a 63.6 percent on-time performance in a stormy March, but even that poor showing took its toll. JetBlue, which almost never cancelled flights in the past, dumped 3.1 percent of its schedule in March. And 8.6 percent of its flights operated late 70 percent of the time or more. … Northwest Airlines has gutted its workforce since its September, 2005, bankruptcy and brutalized the employees still on staff. It paid the price in March, operating at just 66 percent on-time.

Now you shouldn't think for a moment that the airlines are sitting back and accepting their atrocious performance. They are not. On Tuesday, just a day after the DOT released the Air Travel Consumer Report, US Airways reacted with a stunning new plan to make it all better. For the next 11 months, some customers in US Airways' first-class cabins will receive a slice of pie.

And although I couldn't get confirmation at press time, reliable sources at US Airways tell me that the airline will begin serving pie a la mode if its on-time performance drops below 50 percent this summer.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.