By Joe Brancatelli
August 9, 2007 -- When the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report on Tuesday, my colleagues in the general media knocked out perfunctory stories that reported the bare minimum (things are as bad as they've been for more than a decade), then rushed off the next day on Virgin America's inaugural flight.

So much for the claim that the media is only interested in bad-news stories. It's frankly a lot easier to fly free, file fluff and banter with the ever-quotable Richard Branson than to slog through the data in the DOT report, which covers the month of June. Why bother wading through a 62-page report when you can send seat-to-seat messages to your media buddies? Why crunch numbers that affect everyone who flies when you can carry water for an airline that still hasn't published its frequent flyer reward chart, fully activated its on-site flight tracker or even flown a dozen flights?

For anyone who hung back and chose to report rather than revel, however, there are nuances in the numbers. I've outlined some of the most interesting details below. Anyone who travels on business should digest the parts of this month's report most relevant to them. The time you save and frustration you avoid will make your life on the road somewhat easier.

As an industry, the 20 carriers listed in the DOT report managed a dreadful 68.1 percent on-time record for June. But that number sinks further when you factor out the two Hawaii-based carriers (Hawaiian at 92.9 percent on-time and Aloha at 86.8 percent). And it is notable that Southwest Airlines, which is least dependent on the airline industry's delay-amplifying hub-and-spoke model, continues to outperform. It registered a 75.3 percent on-time rating in June. Partially due to the brutal thunderstorms in North Texas in June, American (57.9 percent) and its commuter carrier, American Eagle (60.5), continued to sink to the bottom of the ratings. And then there is the case of US Airways. Ever since its ill-planned and badly botched computer-systems transition in March, US Airways has been in the on-time tank. In June, it did just 61.6 percent on-time.

JetBlue Airways' much-chronicled Valentine's Day massacre at New York/Kennedy Airport continues to obscure an operational reality: At the brutally overscheduled airline, JetBlue is best of an admittedly dull class. Overall, only 52.8 percent of flights at JFK arrived on-time in June. But JFK-based JetBlue delivered a 59.2 percent performance. American's international hub and domestic feeder operations were notably worse. Just 45.7 percent of American flights arrived on-time at JFK and American Eagle (58.5 percent) wasn't too much better. And then there is Delta Air Lines, which has launched dozens of international flights and hundreds of domestic feeder services at JFK since late 2005. The aircraft operated by Delta at JFK managed an on-time performance of just 38.5 percent in June while its two commuter carriers (Comair at 47.8 percent and Mesa at 48.6 percent) were almost as bad.

American's notable decline in systemwide reliability in recent months continued in June. But American officials are quick to blame those aforementioned North Texas storms, which created havoc at its Dallas/Fort Worth hub. Plausible as that one-month excuse may sound, the numbers may not support it. Why? Just 12 miles away at Dallas/Love Field, where Southwest Airlines is king, the weather apparently wasn't as much of an obstacle. Because of the way the DOT reports the numbers, exact comparisons are difficult. But consider: American ran at 57.5 percent on-time at DFW and American Eagle was at 53.1 percent. At Love, however, the airport managed a 66.4 percent on-time rating--and virtually all of the flights there are operated by Southwest. DOT does not break out cancellations by airport, but American Eagle cancelled 5.9 percent of its systemwide flights in June while American cancelled 3.7 percent of its flights. But Southwest cancelled just 0.4 percent of its June flights. If the weather was such a distracting factor in Dallas, why were American/American Eagle's cancellations so large and Southwest's so small?

In an endless stream of bad news about airline hubs, only Delta's relatively uncrowded Salt Lake City connecting facility continues to operate at anything like acceptable levels. Almost 79 percent of June flights at SLC arrived on-time. Compare that to other major hubs: Atlanta (67.9 percent); Charlotte (62.4 percent); Chicago/O'Hare (64.9 percent); Detroit/Metro (69.2 percent); Miami (61.8 percent); Newark (52.2 percent); Philadelphia (58.6 percent); and Washington/Dulles (63.8 percent). Phoenix (75 percent) did well, too, but given the general disarray throughout the US Airways network, I'm reluctant to suggest that anyone fly them anywhere.

The industry's mishandled-baggage rate continued to skyrocket in June, hitting 7.92 reports per 1,000 passengers. That's 20 percent higher than June, 2006, and 36 percent higher than in June, 2004. And, again, the message of the numbers is: Never check a bag when your itinerary includes a connection between a commuter carrier and a Big Six airline. As we've discussed before, it's hard to tell which airline is messing up in a commuter-to-mainline handoff, but it does it really matter who screwed up? Commuter carriers occupy seven of the eight lowest spots on the 20-airline list and their botched-bag rates are as much as 90 percent higher than the industry average. The eighth carrier at the bottom? US Airways, which mishandled bags at a rate of 10.59 per 1,000 passengers.

Eight flights ran late each and every time they operated in June. Seven of the eight flights belonged to Delta or its commuter carriers. And while the New York airports (JFK, LaGuardia and Newark) appear all too frequently on the late list, only two of the worst flights involved JFK (Flight 1891 to LAX and Flight 5565 to Buffalo). The other five involved flights to Atlanta. The 18-page list of flights that arrived late 80 percent of the time or more reads like a manual of torture. American Airlines Flight 882 from Miami to JFK, for example, was late 93.3 percent of the time in June. The average delay? Three hours and 18 minutes. Delta/Atlantic Southeast Flight 4104 from Atlanta to Chattanooga was the nation's worst-in-class in June. Late all 24 times it ran, travelers endured an average daily delay of two hours and 33 minutes.

What's worse than a delayed flight? The one that doesn't operate at all. Flight cancellations are skyrocketing. The industry-wide cancellation rate was just 1.5 percent in June, 2004. It was 2.7 percent this June. And, of course, that doesn't count flights cancelled more than seven days before departure, a dodge Northwest Airlines has been using all summer to keep its published cancellation rate (5.3 percent) in single digits.

The DOT has published the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report since September, 1987. The industry's nearly 20-year average isn't great (78.4 percent), but it is interesting--if not surprising--to see who has been tumbling. Northwest Airlines is historically Number 2 in on-time rating (79.3 percent), but it plummeted to 14th (70.3 percent) during the 12 months ended in June. US Airways, historically Number 5 (78.2 percent), fell to 16th (68.8 percent) in the last 12 months. And United Airlines has dropped from 7th historically to 11th out of 20 in the 12 months ended in June.

Along with the Air Travel Consumer Report, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) now offers up a rich stew of subsidiary numbers. The most interesting: the number and severity of flights held for at least two hours on runways before departure. You can read details at my Summer of Discontent blog.
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.

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