The Brancatelli File



February 23, 2006 -- The airlines treat us like numbers, so it's time to turn the tables on them.

Assessing an airline by the numbers isn't a perfect way to check any particular carrier's performance, of course, but you can learn some useful tips to make your life on the road a little easier. The numbers will point you to the carrier with the best record of providing empty middle seats or show you which airline loses your bag the least frequently. It's all good intelligence.

So consider the following numeric revelations to be tools for better business travel.

The U.S. airline industry set a record by filling 77.8 percent of all the seats it flew in 2005. That means that there are precious few empty middle seats in coach and less space than ever for us to spread out, work or just relax.

Your best shot at the elusive empty middle seats is on Southwest Airlines and its new vassal, ATA Airlines. That's because Southwest (70.7 percent) and ATA (70.6 percent) had the lowest load factors and thus filled the fewest of their middle seats. On the other hand, your worst shot at an empty middle seat next to you was on Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways or Northwest Airlines. Hawaiian filled a staggering 87.5 percent of its seats last year, followed closely by JetBlue at 85.2 percent and Northwest at 82.6 percent. But it should be noted that JetBlue also offers the roomiest coach seats in the air. All of its chairs have 32 or 34 inches of legroom compared to the industry standard of 31 inches of "seat pitch." And in Northwest's defense, it flies a huge number of DC-9s. Those planes are configured 2x3 in coach, meaning that there is no middle seat on the left side of the aircraft.

Among the other big carriers, United Airlines filled 81.5 percent of its seats. America West and Continental each filled 79.5 percent, followed by Spirit (79.1), Delta (77.5), Alaska (75.9), US Airways (75.5) and Frontier (75.3).

American Airlines, which filled 78.6 percent of its seats, flies a huge fleet of MD-80s with no middle seat on the left side. But American loses comfort points because it completely abandoned its "More Room in Coach" initiative in 2005 and returned to the knee-crunching industry standard of 31 inches. Also notable: AirTran Airways filled 73.5 percent of its seats, but that's a bit deceiving from the comfort standpoint. AirTran flies a growing number of Boeing 717s and the carrier has configured the coach seats on those planes with just 30 inches of legroom. Finally, Midwest Airlines, whose coach seats are configured in both its Signature (2x2) and Saver (2x3) formats, had a 2005 load factor of 71.6 percent.

With the notable exception of Hawaiian Airlines, which led the nation with a 95.1 percent on-time rating last year, 2005 wasn't a particularly good year for airline punctuality. The 20 carriers that reported statistics to the Department of Transportation (DOT) only managed to report an average 77.4 percent rating. That's more than a point lower than the DOT's 18-year average. Worse, all the indicators have been going the wrong way. After reaching a respectable 81.3 percent on-time rating in October, the industry plummeted to a 71 percent rating in December, 2005.

On a carrier-by-carrier basis, most notable was the miserable performance of JetBlue. For the year, it only managed a 71.4 percent on-time rating, which ranked 16th out of the 20 reporting airlines. The airline also turned in an awful 63.7 percent on-time performance in December. That was dead last among the 20 carriers and dead last is a neighborhood that JetBlue has become familiar with in recent months. It also ranked last in November and 19th of 20 in October. There is a mitigating factor, though. JetBlue is obsessive about not canceling flights. It scrubbed just 30 flights in December, or four-tenths of one percent of its schedule. That's more than four times better than the industry cancellation average of 1.8 percent. In other words, rather than inconvenience passengers by canceling flights, JetBlue chooses to run troubled or badly delayed flights, which is slightly less inconvenient for flyers. Passengers do seem to appreciate JetBlue's no-cancellation-before-its-time approach. The airline's complaint rate of just .29 per 100,000 passengers in December was about three times better than the industry average.

On the other hand, we can stop listening to United Airlines' repeated claims about how the airline has improved its on-time performance. Its on-time rating slid from sixth in October to ninth in November and 13th out of 20 in December. And its on-time rating for 2005 was 77.6 percent, good for eighth place on the list. That is exactly the same position as United holds in the DOT's 18-year averages.

Also notable: Northwest's on-time performance has tanked since it decided to replace its unionized mechanics, who struck the carrier last August. In September, the first full month of the strike, Northwest finished 20th out of 20 carriers in on-time performance. It finished 12th in October, 19th in November and 18th in December. By comparison, Northwest ranked second for on-time performance in the DOT's 18-year averages.

Lost luggage, which the industry calls "mishandled baggage," skyrocketed in 2005. There were 6.04 reports per 1,000 passengers last year compared to just 4.91 reports in 2004. That's an increase of more than 20 percent and a worrying trend.

It will come as no surprise to passengers of US Airways passengers, but it had the worst mishandled-baggage rate among the major carriers. It registered 9.62 reports per 1,000 passengers in 2005. That compares to US Air's rate of 5.33 per thousand in 2004. Also below the industry average: Delta, which had 7.09 reports per 1,000 passengers. Who's best at luggage handling? Hawaiian Airlines, with just 2.95 reports per 1,000 travelers. The discount carriers AirTran (3.45) and JetBlue (4.06) also performed well.

Commuter carriers frequently complain that business travelers disrespect them and don't recognize the contribution that the smaller airlines make to the national air-travel system. That may be, but commuter carriers get their dissing the old-fashioned way: They earn it. In virtually every important category, the commuters rack up despicable performance ratings.

Take cancelled flights, for example. Compared to that 1.8 percent industry average in December, American Eagle cancelled 3.8 percent of its flights. Skywest (2.9), Atlantic Southeast (3.1), Comair (2.7) and ExpressJet (2.8) also rated below the industry average.

Want to talk about mishandled baggage? Woe to those who check luggage with commuter airlines. While the industry averages that less-than-stellar 6.04 reports per 1,000 flyers, the commuters are much worse. ExpressJet is at 6.59, followed by Skywest (10.06), American Eagle (10.25), Comair (10.75) and the never-to-be-trusted Atlantic Southeast (17.41).

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.