Atlantic Southeast Airlines Has Highest Delay Rate

If you traveled on Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines this summer, you had almost a 50-50 chance of being late - the highest delay rate in the industry. On top of that, you also faced the highest odds of having your baggage lost.

Known as ASA, the regional airline has long grappled with service issues. But lately it's achieved a rare ignominy: Out of 20 airlines tracked in a government report, ASA ranked 20th in both on-time performance and baggage handling in each of the last four monthly reports.

ASA's problems are also Delta Air Lines' problems. ASA customers fly on tickets sold by Delta and in planes painted with Delta colors - so Delta naturally gets the blame if they have problems.

More Delta customers also find themselves on ASA, whose 358 daily flights out of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport account for about one in six Delta passengers. That number has grown rapidly as the bigger carrier shifted more domestic flying to regional partners as part of its Chapter 11 restructuring.

"Am I happy with it? No, not at all," said Joe Kolshak, Delta's executive vice president of operations. "These aren't ASA customers. They are Delta customers. We sell Delta tickets."

It has been so bad, Kolshak said, that ASA has missed out on millions of dollars in performance incentives under its contract with Delta. Kolshak keeps a digital camera handy to document problems he can forward to ASA's managers.

The man getting many of those pictures is Anthony DiNota, who two months ago was put in charge of fixing ASA's service shortcomings as head of its Atlanta airport operations.

He makes no excuses.

"Every criticism we get, we deserve," DiNota said. The Atlanta hub is where most of the problems originate, he added. "It's our golden goose. We better figure out how to make her purr."

He said the 5,700-employee company is hiring 300 extra employees, spending $5 million on extra equipment and facilities and overhauling procedures to improve its baggage and on-time performance.

Jobs affected

Improvement can't come soon enough for some customers.

Michael McCullough, a public relations account executive, said an ASA flight he took this summer from Atlanta to Key West, Fla., was significantly delayed because of overbooking.

"Everyone was on vacation and no one wanted to take the miles or whatever," he said, referring to an ASA offer of Delta SkyMiles to get passengers to give up seats. "We sat there for 45 minutes. It was crazy." Finally, he said, ASA involuntarily bumped the last passengers who had checked in, and the flight departed.

Russ McGonagil, an independent TV technician who runs instant replays for college football games and other sports programs, is more forgiving. Or maybe just more jaded.

Late flights and glitches are just "part of flying," said McGonagil, who has flown out of Atlanta most weekends for more than two decades.

"They've loaded up all of the planes. The system is filled up to the max so that all it takes is a little sprinkle ... to clog up the system," he said. "It doesn't bother me that much any more."

Many smaller cities rely on ASA for a link to Delta's Atlanta hub, and businesspeople in some have long complained about ASA.

"It affects my ability to do my job," said Ellen McNair, vice president of corporate development for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. She said people flying in to consider locating a business or convention in Montgomery were upset by bad ASA flights.

"It reflects on Montgomery," she said. "If you can't get here, or you're delayed or your bag is lost ... good luck getting that convention."

She said the community has sent letters, pleaded with local managers and dispatched emissaries to Atlanta to meet Delta and ASA executives. "This has been a very big epic for us over the last seven or eight years," she said. "There's just no excuse for the service that they provide."

The city hired industry consultant Michael Boyd to help.

"Jobs and economic growth are being threatened, and all we hear from ASA is 'We're working on it.' " Boyd said. He believes SkyWest, which now owns ASA, will improve service, but that it may mean replacing ASA's "sloppy and unconcerned" management.

"SkyWest is going to do it, but it's going to take more than just buying equipment," he said. "They need to hose out that whole ASA headquarters."

Higher bumping figures

ASA was launched in 1979 and grew into an independent --- and highly profitable --- contract carrier for Delta. Delta bought out ASA in 1999, citing as one reason a need to improve its service.

In September 2005, just a week before filing for Chapter 11 protection, Delta sold its ASA subsidiary to Utah-based SkyWest and returned to a contract arrangement with the carrier.

Until 2003 it was hard to gauge ASA's service because it wasn't included in the U.S. Department of Transportation's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. The report lists rates for on-time arrivals and lost luggage, ranking service through hard data rather than the more common --- and less reliable --- yardsticks of anecdote or reputation. ASA was added to the report when the DOT altered it to include more carriers.

The spotlight has been harsh. ASA is usually last in baggage handling --- rated by mishandled bag reports per 1,000 passengers --- and in the bottom half for on-time arrivals.

Lately, it's been worse than that. ASA was last in both categories in June, July, August and September. Its on-time rates were below 60 percent --- a number not often seen in the DOT reports --- in the latter three of those months. It also had 61 of the 135 flights on the September report's list of flights that were late more than 80 percent of the time. One offender, its 6:30 p.m. flight to Atlanta from Akron, Ohio, was late 95 percent of the time, and by an average of 82 minutes.

ASA's lost luggage rate peaked at 24.13 per 1,000 customers in September --- nearly three times the industry average of 8.25.

One apparent mitigating factor was a runway repaving at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which started in September and sent Delta's and AirTran Airways' on-time numbers tumbling for that month as well.

According to DOT numbers, ASA cancels a much higher percentage of flights and bumps passengers four times more often than most carriers. On the other hand, it usually ranks in the middle on consumer complaints filed with the DOT. Other regional carriers, such as American Eagle, also tend to do poorly in the report, though none as chronically as ASA.

SkyWest investing

DiNota says ASA is focusing on baggage handling issues first, because problems there have been so chronic and affect other aspects of the operation. "Bags, unfortunately, are just a side effect of a lot of things," he said.

DiNota believes many of ASA's problems stem from bottlenecks fueled by too little investment and short-staffing. The airline is also working with Delta on scheduling to boost on-time rates and help smooth luggage handling.

DiNota thinks Delta understood how to fix ASA's shortcomings but was thwarted by a lack of funding as it struggled with its own financial problems, which started only a few months after the '99 buyout. SkyWest apparently isn't under the same constraints; its profits have soared almost 60 percent to $183 million during the five quarters that it has owned ASA. The company's SkyWest regional carrier, which operates as a Delta Connection carrier in the Far West, usually does well in the DOT service reports.

ASA plans to spend about $5 million over the next several months on more than 100 baggage carts, 40 airport tugs, portable computers, baggage loading ramps, passenger boarding ramps and other equipment, DiNota said.

ASA also is hiring about 300 employees to beef up operations in baggage handling and at each gate, and to speed up aircraft "turns" --- the amount of time it takes to unload, clean, refuel and load jets.

Delta calls shots

Rick Bernskoetter, spokesman for the pilots' union at ASA, believes a combination of short-staffing, high turnover and cramped and poorly designed gate areas in Atlanta cause most delays.

"Our on-time performance doesn't fall apart in the air. It falls apart on the ground," Bernskoetter said. He has had to park his plane for more than an hour waiting for a gate, he said.

Kolshak agreed crew shortages are a big reason why ASA hasn't kept up with its flight schedules. Delta typically gives ASA's regional jets 45 minutes at the gate to get ready for the next flight.

"If you only have one crew for three planes, you only have a third of that ... time. That is the problem," Kolshak said.

DiNota said ASA has raised ramp employees' pay and expects ramp operations to be fully staffed by December.

ASA will still be somewhat at Delta's mercy. The bigger carrier decides how many flights ASA should handle, how much time it has and whose flights will be cancelled when bad weather threatens. ASA's rate of flight cancellations this summer --- among the highest in the industry --- was about 60 percent higher than Delta's.

Kolshak acknowledged Delta sometimes grounds contract carriers' smaller jets first when air traffic clogs up. "We have to triage," he said. DiNota said one good move came when Delta agreed to use its own ramp staff in Atlanta to take care of other regional carriers' jets, freeing up about 150 ASA employees. He hopes travelers will see obvious improvements before next summer.

"We're very focused," he said.

WHAT ASA IS DOING

The airline's Atlanta hub chief points to signs of progress:

* Hiring 300 more employees.

* Spending $5 million on facilities and equipment.

* Restructuring baggage procedures. For instance, carts for an outgoing flight will always be parked and unloaded in one spot, rather than in a dozen "zones" that led to confusion.

* Putting separate crews at each plane's parking spot, rather than have one crew handle multiple planes.

* Working on better schedule coordination with Delta.

* ASA crews no longer have to handle flights for other Delta partners.

CELLAR DWELLER

ASA fell to last place among 20 airlines in on-time rates and baggage handling this summer, according to monthly service reports by the U.S. DOT. Here are ASA's rankings, along with those of partner Delta and rival AirTran, which dominate Atlanta travel. (On-time flights are flights arriving within 15 minutes of schedule. Lost luggage rates are mishandled baggage reports per 1,000 passengers.)

On-time flights

............May.........June ......July........Aug.........Sept

ASA..........15th/74.6...20th/63.5..20th/57.3 ..20th/58.1 ..20th/55.5

Delta ........5th/82.2 ...8th/74.0 ..7th/77.0 ..10th/76.0 ..18th/68.6

AirTran......12th/78.8...11th/71.5 ..8th/75.6 ..16th/72.3 ..17th/70.8

Ind. avg. ........78.3 .......72.8 ......73.7........75.8........76.2

Lost luggage

ASA..........19th/11.33 .20th/19.20 20th/16.90..20th/21.56..20th/24.13

Delta........11th/ 4.75 .13th/ 6.64 13th/ 6.61..13th/ 9.0 ..15th/ 9.58

AirTran ......9th/ 4.41 .12th/ 5.55 11th/ 5.9 ..49th/ 6.99 ..5th/ 5.36

Ind. avg...........4.94 .......6.28 ......6.50........8.08........8.25

Source: U.S. DOT Air Travel Consumer Report.

See the full reports at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/



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