The Brancatelli File



November 3, 2005 -- I cannot say that the latest Transportation Department Air Travel Consumer Report landed with a thump on my desk today. After all, the 45-page collection of statistics on flight delays, "mishandled" bags and other airline malfeasance now comes via E-mail and PDF files don't make noise.

But I can say this: Life on the road in September was a little bit better. As an industry, the 20 carriers in the report registered an 82.7 percent on-time rating. That's historically decent, nicely above the 12-month average of 77.3 percent--and a lot better than August's 75.2 percent rating and July's dreary 70.9 percent mark.

Of course, 82.7 percent across the industry doesn't say all that much. The devil--and there is always a devil when we're talking about airlines--is in the details. Allow me to summarize and regurgitate.

In the first full month of its mechanics strike, Northwest Airlines crashed to the floor of the ratings. Dead last. It finished 20th out of 20 carriers. Worse even than traditional laggards like American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, ExpressJet and the other commuter airlines. It's 74.8 percent rating in September was almost five points worse than its nearest Big Six competitor (Continental Airlines) and about 12 points worse than September's best of the Big Six (US Airways). In comparison, Northwest finished in the middle of the pack in July, the last full month before the strike. Worse, Northwest's 20th place finish in September contrasts with its 2nd place position in the 18-year average of the DOT report. Worst of all: 1.2 percent of Northwest's flights arrived late 70 percent of the time in September. That was four times the industry average. Of course, Northwest has continually insisted that it has been running a "normal" operation during the strike.

Three airlines that have been struggling with on-time performance during the last year had revealing numbers in September. AirTran got it's on-time rating up to a slightly-better-than-industry-average 83.1 percent, good for 12th among the 20 carriers. That's up smartly from July's dead-last 60 percent rating and August's next-to-last 64 percent mark. JetBlue did better. It turned in an 83.8 percent rating--good for a Number 10 rating--in September. That's a steady improvement from July's 61.5 percent performance and August's 73.8 percent mark. On the other hand, Alaska Airlines continues to struggle. Although its 78.5 percent mark in September was better, it was only good enough for 18th among the 20 carriers. That's exactly where it was during the entire third quarter of this year and just a smidgen better than its 19th place ranking for the last 12 months.

Would it shock you to know that Newark was the nation's worst major airport during the month of September? Almost 30 percent of flights headed there ran late in September. Its dreary 71.1 percent rating was worse than the other two major New York-area airports (LaGuardia at 77 percent and Kennedy at 80.5 percent), worse than Boston (74 percent), Houston/Intercontinental (78.1 percent) and San Francisco (78.5).

At least for one month, Fort Lauderdale wasn't the nation's aeronautic laughingstock. The airport's on-time rating had dipped as low as 55 percent this year and 30 percent of flights headed there were routinely arriving late. But the airport posted an 84.5 percent on-time arrival rate in September. Meanwhile, two traditionally troubled major airports, Atlanta and Chicago/O'Hare, had decent months, too. Atlanta racked up an 82.3 percent on-time rating and O'Hare, which is operating with voluntary capacity reductions, clocked an 81 percent performance.

Northwest Airlines Flight 1477 ran late every time it operated in September. But Northwest deserves a break here: Flight 1477 operates between Detroit and New Orleans and service to The Big Easy was anything but easy in the first month after Hurricane Katrina. On the other hand, Southwest has to answer for the fact that it had the next three worst flights in September. All of them operated into or out of Las Vegas. Southwest Flight 121 (Orlando-Las Vegas) was late 94 percent of the time in September and the average delay was 26 minutes. Southwest Flight 3404 (Las Vegas-Oakland) was just as bad: late 94 percent of the time with an average delay of 36 minutes. And Southwest Flight 866 (Los Angeles-Las Vegas) was the worst of all: It was late 93 percent of the time and the average delay was 55 minutes. Continental also had a very notable flight from hell: Flight 1190 from Newark to Boston was late 90 percent of the time in September and the average delay was one hour and 7 minutes.

Finally, we come to a slam-dunk conclusion of September's Air Travel Consumer Report: Never, ever check your bag on a commuter airline. The four carriers that "mishandled" the most luggage in September were all commuters. While the 20-carrier industry average of 4.49 mishandled baggage reports per 1,000 passengers was bad enough, the Gang of Four was truly dreadful. Atlantic Southeast had 12.47 reports per 1,000. American Eagle had 8.58 reports, followed by Comair (8.02) and Skywest (6.53). The only other commuter in the survey (ExpressJet) also exceeded the industry average with 5.04 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.