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THE STATS SAY THE SKY ISN'T FALLING
By Joe Brancatelli
April 26, 2013 -- So here's the only thing I know for sure about the sequester-inspired furloughs of air traffic controllers: Everyone but you and I has a vested interest in claiming that delays are piling up.

    The Obama Administration wants you to think there are delays so you'll pressure Congress to overturn the sequester.
    Republicans want you to think there are delays so you will blame Obama.
    The Federal Aviation Administration wants you to think there are delays so it can get out from under the $637 million that the sequester slashes from its budget before September 30.
    Airline executives want you to think there are delays so you will beg the Transportation Department to repeal the three-hour tarmac rule that they hate with a passion reserved for bean counters who've been very publicly proven wrong.
    Air traffic controllers want you to think there are delays so they can insist on an exemption from the one unpaid furlough day in ten that the FAA has imposed on employees.
    Airline beat reporters in the general media want you to believe there are delays because otherwise they don't have a story.

Problem is, the statistics don't show that delays are piling up. It's why all of the stories you've read and video coverage you've watched in the last couple of days are curiously bereft of hard and contextually accurate analysis to back up the claim.

So you and I can discuss this rationally, here are the actual numbers from FlightStats.com since Sunday, April 21, the first day the FAA started its regimen of air traffic controller furloughs.

On Sunday, the system operated at 81.1 percent on-time, 7 percent of the delays were deemed "excessive" (45 minutes or more) and less than one percent of the schedule was cancelled. On the previous Sunday, April 14, the system ran 78.3 percent on-time with 8 percent of flights excessively delayed and one percent of the schedule cancelled.

On Monday (April 22), day two of the sequester furloughs, the system ran 70.69 percent on-time with 13.21 percent excessively delayed and cancellations scrubbing 1.36 percent of the network. The previous Monday (April 15), 79.82 percent of flights were on-time with 7.19 percent excessively delayed and .81 percent of the system dumped.

On Tuesday (April 23), day three of the sequester furloughs, the system ran 73.72 percent on-time with 10.72 percent of flights excessively delayed and 1.43 percent of the system cancelled. On the previous Tuesday (April 16), 80.70 percent of flights were on-time with 8.93 percent excessively delayed and 5.15 percent of the system dumped.

On Wednesday (April 24), day four of the sequester furloughs, the system ran 75.10 percent on-time with 9.14 percent of flights excessively delayed and 1.32 percent of the schedule scrubbed. The previous Wednesday (April 17), the system ran 71.15 percent on-time with 14.69 percent of flights excessively delayed and 5.95 percent of the schedule cancelled.

Yesterday (April 25), day five of the sequester furloughs, the system ran 75.80 percent on-time with 8.96 percent of flights excessively delayed and .77 percent of the schedule dumped. The previous Thursday (April 18), the system ran 58.01 percent on-time with 24.79 percent of the flights excessively delayed and 6.76 percent of the schedule scrubbed.

Before we get into the bells and whistles, explanations and excuses, the final score: Since the furloughs hit on Sunday, three days this week outperformed last week's on-time percentage. The on-time ratings of two days this week were worse than last week.

Does that sound like "delays are piling up" to you? Me, neither.

But let's not make the same mistake that others commit. We know weather has a lot to do with on-time performance. Based on my notes, however, I'd say the two weeks, meteorologically, were a wash. The exception was last Thursday, April 18. Bad weather nationwide made it one of the worst days of the year to fly, which explains why yesterday's 75.8 percent on-time rating was nearly 20 percent better. Still, yesterday was a generally fine weather day and the on-time rating should have easily surpassed 80 percent.

Also notable: American's computers collapsed on Tuesday, April 17, so it's distressing that this past Tuesday's performance was poorer. And despite its claims to the contrary, American was struggling the next day, too, so judge Wednesday's better on-time performance as you will.

Because you and I are more interested in reality than talking points, let's also add historical perspective. Although it doesn't have day-by-day statistics, the Transportation Department's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report does offer full-month analysis.

Last April, the system racked up an 86.3 percent on-time rating. That means all the days we've looked at, both pre- and post-sequester furloughs, underperformed a similar period last year. In April, 2011, the system ran at 75.5 percent for the month. In April, 2010, it was 85.3 percent. In April, 2009, it was 79.1 percent. April, 2008, was at 77.7 percent. The April, 2007, rating was 75.7 percent on-time. April, 2006, was 78.4 percent.

I don't know what, if anything, those numbers tell us. But my back-of-the-napkin math says both this month's pre- and post-sequester numbers are within the historic norms. Your mileage and opinion may vary.

What about those of you who have been told by pilots or airline gate agents that your delay this week has been caused by the controller situation?

Besides the obviously snarky comment--The airlines never lie about the cause of delays, do they?--we can't dismiss the reality that some of this week's backups have been caused by a shortage of on-duty controllers. There have been some random ground stops and slowdowns that are out of the ordinary. And The Wall Street Journal said the FAA "attributed" 1,025 of Tuesday's 6,000+ delays to controller staffing issues.

By the way, one other data point. According to FlightStats, the worst delays this week have been at airports in New York and Chicago. Gee, folks, that's so shocking and extraordinary.

So where are we, really, in Day 6 of this debate?

Me, I don't see any big problems. And certainly no crisis that must be immediately addressed lest the sky fall--or, perhaps more metaphorically correct, slow to a crawl.

If you want to think otherwise, I can live with that. But just be careful what you claim because you don't want to cast your lot with self-serving politicians, airline bosses, bureaucrats and too-lazy-to-run-down-the-easily-available-stats reporters.

After all, you and I have to fly these unfriendly skies after they've all moved on to some other talking point that may or may not be true.

An update on Saturday, April 27: As you've surely heard, yesterday Congress passed, and President Obama will sign, a bill that essentially reverses the FAA cuts. Staffing in air traffic control towers should be back to normal by Sunday evening, the agency said. The bill also negates the FAA's attempt to close "contract towers" at 147 lightly used airports.

Of course, all this ignores the fact that the sequester-inspired furloughs haven't affected delays. Yesterday, Day 6 of the furloughs, finished with a higher on-time rating (79 percent) than last Friday, April 19 (62 percent). That means four out of six days after the furloughs registered better on-time numbers than the previous week.

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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 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.