The Brancatelli File



August 6, 1998 -- Where do you go from mediocre, which is where the major U.S. airlines have mostly resided since the dawn of deregulation?

You go into the tank. In fact, you crash through the floor of the tank and hurtle toward rock bottom, which is where the major carriers find themselves after the release of the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report for the month of June.

Published on Monday, the complete DOT report is available at DOT Web Site. Read it yourself. The numbers are a pitiless indictment of how the major carriers perform.

On the top line, the DOT report reveals that three of every ten flights operated by the major carriers in June arrived late. And late, as you may know, is relative, since airlines are allowed to classify flights as "on time" even if they arrive as much as 15 minutes behind schedule.

The industry's on-time rating of 70.4 percent in June pales even further when you add a dollop of historical perspective. As recently as the third quarter of 1997, the ten major carriers operated 80.3 percent of their flights on time. If you exclude Southwest, a point-to-point carrier, Delta was June's best on-time performer. Its 75.4 percent rating was the "best" of any major hub carrier. Yet that performance would have placed Delta tenth as recently as last year's third quarter.

In other words, the best hub carrier now operates only about as efficiently as the worst hub airline performed just ten months ago. One shudders to think where we'll be ten months from today.

And it's not just that more flights ran late in June than ever before. More flights ran later than ever before, too.

In May, DOT reported that 16 scheduled flights arrived late at least 80 percent of the time they operated. That number escalated by a factor of 11 in June, when more than 175 scheduled flights arrived late at least 80 percent of the time.

The nation's tardiest flights in June actually were delayed longer than the time they flew. American Airlines Flight 1137, for example, operated an average of two hours and 24 minutes behind schedule during June. The elapsed flight time on AA 1137's route--between Newark and Chicago O'Hare--is just two hours and 20 minutes. And United Flight 210 operated an average of two hours late every time it flew between Washington's Dulles Airport and Boston. The route's listed flight time: one hour and 34 minutes.

Nationwide, excepting Southwest, the major carriers operated 12,801 regularly scheduled flights in June. Five hundred seventy of them--or about 4.5 percent--operated late 70 percent of the time or more. Fewer than one percent of the nation's flights operated that poorly in May. And the nation's worst on-time carrier in June, Northwest Airlines, operated more than 9 percent of its flights late more than 70 percent of the time.

Northwest also had the dubious distinction of being the nation's most complained about carrier in June. Of all the complaints against airlines received by DOT, Northwest alone accounted for more than 20 percent of the total. Northwest's complaint ratio of 2.34 was 13 times higher than that of Southwest Airlines.

But don't run screaming from your computer screen just yet. There's still more bad news.

Buried in the DOT report are frightening airport statistics. Two examples: Only 53.2 percent of flights headed to San Francisco arrived on time in June. Boston's Logan Airport was just a shade better, with 57.4 percent of flights on schedule.

On an airline-by-airline basis, US Airways managed the worst single performance: just 20.7 percent of its flights headed for Las Vegas arrived on time in June. It fared little better in San Francisco (24.4 percent) or Los Angeles (28.3 percent). Northwest was on-time less than 30 percent of the time in Phoenix and San Francisco. America West flights arrived on-time in Seattle just 30.1 percent of the time.

Two final points worth noting:

1) As predicted here, the "mishandled baggage" rate skyrocketed in June, the month many airlines began enforcing more stringent carry-on rules. There were 5.76 reports of mishandled bags for each 1,000 travelers in June, an almost 20 percent increase over the May rate of 4.79.

2) Not a single airline executive has issued an explanation or apology for the industry's egregiously poor performance in June.

This column originally appeared at

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