The Brancatelli File



July 9, 1998 -- Airline executives routinely dismiss individual cases of passenger maltreatment and true-life stories about poor service as merely anecdotal and not representative of their worldwide product.

"Our internal quality measurements," they will frequently bluster, "show that we're doing quite well."

The problem with this response is that airline executives never show you those startling internal statistics. Those crack scientific quality measurements are always proprietary. Releasing the numbers would obviously threaten corporate confidentiality and national security and compromise the ultra-secret method the airlines have developed to honey-roast peanuts.

So if the carriers reject our specific tales of woe and refuse to show us their numbers, what can we agree to use as a measure of an airline's competence?

How about the Air Travel Consumer Report, the monthly thicket of performance statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation? The DOT report isn't flawless, and it features some curiously useless data, but it also sheds a remarkable amount of light on the state of air travel right now.

The July report, which covers travel during the month of May, is now available for all to peruse at the DOT Web site. And--surprise!--the DOT report is nothing if not a compelling tale of despair by the numbers.

Let's start with the basics: on-time performance. The 10 largest U.S. carriers posted an on-time arrival record of 77.5 percent in May, 1998. That's down from April's on-time mark of 79.1 and an eye-opening 5 points below the 82.8 percent on-time mark the airlines posted in May, 1997. It also means that about one in four flights in this country arrive late--even though any flight that arrives up to 15 minutes late is actually considered on time.

Airlines are also "mishandling" more bags, according to the DOT report. The complaint rate of 4.79 per 1,000 passengers in May was higher than April's mark of 4.56 or the 3.90 rate managed by the airlines in May, 1997. Roughly speaking, a mishandled-bag rate of 4.79 per 1,000 means that about one passenger in 200 has a baggage problem, or almost one traveler per flight.

Customer complaints about airline service also skyrocketed in May. Thirty percent more passengers complained to DOT about the airlines in May than in April. Moreover, the May, 1998, complaint rate was 25 percent higher than in May, 1997.

On an airline-by-airline basis, the numbers are even more disturbing. United, running around the middle of the 10-carrier pack in March and April, recorded the worst on-time mark in May. Only 69 percent of its flights arrived on time. May's ninth-place finisher, Northwest (71.5 percent on time), finished last in April (71.3 percent) and eighth in March (72.9 percent).

Also worth noting is TWA's continuing problems. After finishing with the nation's best on-time record in the second and third quarters of 1997--and taking out boastful newspaper ads and issuing schedule guarantees--TWA has crumbled. It finished fifth in the next two calendar quarters, fell to ninth place in March and was sixth in both April and May.

DOT also publishes a carrier-by-carrier performance record at 29 major airports. The nation's worst airports in May were Boston (65.3 percent of flights arrived there on time), Newark (64.9) and San Francisco (58.1). America West was worst at San Francisco, with a 50.5 percent rating. The tardiest carrier at the other two airports was Northwest; only 47.6 percent of Northwest's flights arrived on time in Boston and just 50.5 percent of its flights were timely at Newark.

According to the DOT statistics, 16 flights in May arrived late at least 80 percent of the time. United operated seven of those flights, followed by Northwest (4), America West (3) and Delta (2). The king of the late flyers? Northwest Flight 206, from Detroit to Hartford, Connecticut. It was late all 26 times it operated in May; on average, Flight 206 left 63 minutes past its scheduled 8:55 p.m. departure time.

In the land of lost baggage, DOT reports that United (7.29 reports per 1,000 passengers) and Northwest (6.89) were at the bottom of the pile. The most efficient baggage handlers were America West (3.53) and American (3.55 per 1,000 passengers).

Lastly, there is the matter of customer complaints lodged with DOT against the 10 major airlines. The nation's most complained about airline in May was Northwest. It accounted for more than 20 percent of all the complaints DOT received. Its complaint ratio of 2.80 (per 100,000 passengers) was more than double the industry average of 1.15 and 15 times higher than the ratio recorded by Southwest, the airline about which DOT received the fewest complaints.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.