The Numbers Prove Which Airline Runs the Best Operation, and It Isn’t the One You Think…

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics is a treasure trove of data, and their on-time performance statistics are one area of fascination for an aviation junkie.

It’s conventional wisdom that Delta runs a good airline operation. And that’s true: Delta performs well as an on-time airline since 2011, 3 to 7 points better than industry average.

Hawaiian Airlines shows up as a perennial leader, a function of being based in Hawaii which doesn’t have the same weather and air traffic issues that other airlines face in their home cities.

An article of faith amongst several ex-Continental loyalists is that Continental was the better run airline and United a disaster when the two carriers merged. This isn’t borne out by the on-time performance data. In most years United and Continental had similar on-time performance. United was actually better than Continental in the two years prior to merged operations. They were about even most of the time except for 2000 and 2001, when United was abysmally worse than the rest of the industry. (Frequent flyers dubbed 2000 as ‘the Summer from Hell’ when pilots engaged in a ‘work to rule’ job action.)

Here’s what stands out the most for me: Alaska Airlines is remarkable. They were an industry-average performer from 2006 to 2008. Then something happened. While the rest of the industry was arriving on-time 76% – 82% of the time, Alaska has been at over 87% for each of the past five years.

I’ve done plenty of Alaska Airlines flying, from cross country (DC, Chicago, and Houston – Seattle) to up and down the West Coast and Horizon regional operations out of Seattle. And the funny thing is I must have experienced all of the flights where they’re actually late. What shows up in the statistics is an actual remarkable performance. And I’m a bit perplexed by it.

Why does Alaska Airlines appear to be running so much of a better operation than the rest of the industry? And why – when Delta is so often acknowledged by industry insiders as the performance leader they admire – doesn’t Alaska get the recognition for this that it deserves?


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Why oh why is it assumed that if you run an airline that scr–ws over its customers that you run a better operation than an airline that is actually well run, customer friendly and doesn’t devalue its mileage program, AKA AK Airlines?

    Profits don’t always mean, a mean spirited management team or an evil Devalued Frequent Flyer/loyalty Program Hear that Hilton???

  2. Alaska had a whole section on this in their last Investor Day presentation: http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=109361&p=irol-EventDetails&EventId=5176570. Starts on slide 42. The chart on slide 46 illustrates what you pointed out quite clearly 🙂

    Slide 48 points out they have a 99.3% flight completion rate, up from 98.3% in 2008.

    Slide 50 shows that Alaska maintains this on-time performance while using a shorter block time than other carriers.

    Slide 51 shows their employee productivity per passenger, up to 194 from 151 in 2008.

  3. How about actually providing the numbers that lead to your conclusions.

    Here are some.

    For 2003 – 2010…

    On-time rate
    UA: 76.38
    CO: 76.42

    Pretty close.

    But look under the hood…

    Cancellation rate
    UA: 1.76
    CO: 0.82

    Air carrier caused delay
    UA: 5.12
    CO: 4.41

    Sorry, but CO ran a meaningfully better operation than UA leading up to the merger, for the factors it can control, which is what an operation is about.

    And you know well how much more a high cancellation rate disrupts a traveler’s experience and perception of an airline than garden variety 30 minute ATC delays.

    These same deltas hold for 2008-2010, the UA fan boy ‘renaissance’ years.

    http://www.transtats.bts.gov/OT_Delay/OT_DelayCause1.asp?pn=1

    UA was a deferred maintenance machine. And it kept people onboard with overly generous compensation.

  4. Just ask Lucky and he’ll tell you (like many others) that its the fact they start boarding waaaay early. That’s why the gate lice are standing at the AS gates 45mins before departure and you always have to get by them if you’re arriving anywhere near scheduled boarding time and are flying up front.

  5. Gave me a chuckle as coming home from Seattle in Nov our flight was delayed three hours while they dismantled the cockpit instrument panel because a paper clip had fallen in behind it. Why would they allow paper clips in cockpit?

    They really are trying hard now that Delta is stalking them like a lumbering Ox, seeming to have swallowed half the SEA airport. Surely it’s an anti-trust concern – you’d expect the local authorities to act on behalf of the hometown team unless they’ve been bought like all the national politicians.

  6. Gave me a chuckle as coming home from Seattle in Nov our flight was delayed three hours while they dismantled the cockpit instrument panel because a paper clip had fallen in behind it. Why would they allow paper clips in cockpit?

    They really are trying hard now that Delta is stalking them like a lumbering Ox, seeming to have swallowed half the SEA airport. Surely it’s an anti-trust concern – you’d expect the local authorities to act on behalf of the hometown team unless they’ve been bought like all the national politicians.

    One determined customer service rep made a bunch of calls to the actual outfitters squeezing in the extra row on the 800’s to find out which rows now have non-aligned windows (turned out to be my row, 10), then moved me way up to 7F without my even asking so I’d have a great view of Waikiki Beach on my Cyber Monday $150 flight! This makes me consider putting my main carrier AA’s miles into AS program to avoid late-date booking fees, but their rep was honest that I’d not have a full selection of transcon flights on AA if I do.

  7. I have the exact same problem as you, every single AS flight I’ve been on has been delayed. I do quite enjoy their Mileage Plan program though.

  8. One possibility is that they say the arrival time is later than it actually should be. I have a flight with them to Hawaii and they pushed the arrival time back by 15 minutes but made no changes to the departure time.

    Perhaps they just play the game better.

  9. As others have posted it’s because they are in final boarding calling names by the posted start time for boarding.

    Oh and they only operate out of sea which is pretty big with 3 runways, but has no bad weather (no snow/ice, no tornados, no hurricanes, no thunderstorms) or nearby competing airports that create congestion.

  10. @BallardFlyer you may want to look at the most recent Alaska Airlines route map. They have 86 routes from SEA, 46 routes from PDX, 24 from ANC, 18 from LAX, 17 from SAN, and 12 from SLC. They operate plenty of flights from plenty of places other than Seattle.

  11. i’d argue that AS vs DL regarding operational performance is a bit of an apples vs oranges argument. DL runs a far more complex operation than AS, has hubs in two of the worst delay-prone airports of LGA and JFK, and has a TON more daily flights than AS (I’m too lazy to look up the exact amounts). Outside of the handful of midcom/transcon flights they operate plus Hawaii, AS is essentially a large regional carrier confined to the west coast. I’m not knocking the high operational performance they have achieved – it’s great and all carriers should strive for it – but achieving these type of numbers at DL is a whole lot more impressive than doing so at AS. Just my two cents. 🙂

  12. @Bryan I don’t have an issue with ‘schedule padding’ per se. An airline tells you what to expect, and it delivers that on-time or not. Failing to meet the schedule is where problems come in, with missed connections and missed events. In truth airlines increase the time it takes to fly between cities when they expect delays such as due to air traffic congestion. But they don’t want to pad schedules. Every extra minute is expensive. At United, conventional wisdom is that an extra 5 minutes per flight per day would mean they would need an extra 18 aircraft. In any case to the extent there’s padding and gaming the relative difference in on-time performance would still matter.

  13. I think people cling to dot on time metrics just because they’re easily quantifiable. I don’t think it’s that good of a proxy for overall quality. Who really cares about small delays of 15 min on every flight? It’s how the airline handle big delays that cause mis connects or forced overnights that count.

  14. @Gary, Schedule padding to improve on-time performance seems benign but the airlines are only cheating themselves as well as their passengers. It covers up imperfections and inefficiencies in airline operations and the air traffic control system. Passengers pay for these inefficiencies with god only knows how many millions of wasted hours of our time.

  15. Flew AS for the first time in 10 years last week from SEA to LAX and enjoyed it. Prompt and efficient boarding, and was particularly impressed by the “20 minute” baggage guarantee they announced as we debarked- good service extended to the baggage handling.

    I was flying on a Delta redemption, and was amused to see they booked me on an AS flight out of Seattle, given the battleground status of that airport right now between the two carriers.

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