Some Good News

Sept. 25, 2012
Being on time in Chicago won’t mean much if my bags are in San Francisco.

U.S. airlines are not only on time, but passengers and their bags are more likely to be reunited at their final destinations.

So says the latest data from the Department of Transportation. Here are two highlights:

  • Nearly 84 percent of domestic flights arrived within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival time in the first half of this year – a record high since the DOT began tracking these numbers almost 15 years ago.
  • Fewer than three suitcases per 1,000 passengers were reported lost, damaged or delayed during the same time frame – in this case, a record low.

If the last six months of this year are anything like the first, the airline industry will end 2012 with its best numbers since 1991. Wondering about the worst? Just 73 percent of flights were on time in 2000; nearly eight bags per 1,000 passengers were late, lost or damaged in 1989.

Every delayed minute adds up to an eternity in passengers’ minds. But shaving minutes adds up to huge savings for airlines. To operate a plane costs $75 dollars a minute and domestic delays cost the airlines an estimated $5.2 billion last year.

The reasons for these high marks?

In the positive category, we couldn’t have asked for better flying weather. According to the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aviation Weather Center, there have been 10 percent fewer thunderstorms than usual this year. Winter was also hardly a factor. For example, New York had only 3 inches of snow this past winter compared to a 10-year annual average of 20 inches.

Also, airlines are flying newer planes, which should mean fewer mechanical issues at the gate. And airlines have added incentives and penalties to ground handling contracts for timely and not-so-timely deliveries of fuel and catering.

Finally, everyone's in the habit of being aware of delays. New federal regulations require airlines to post on-time performance for their flights right on their web sites for all to see. The past public outcry over passengers trapped on airplanes for 10 hours now means airlines can be fined as much as $27,500 per passenger, if a plane sits on a tarmac for more than three hours.

In related stats, the DOT also reported separately that only four planes sat longer than three hours from January to June. That’s a big drop from the 35 tarmac delays reported during the same period of time last year, the first year the rule took effect. By comparison, there were 586 tarmac delays for three hours or more back in just the first six months of 2009.

In the negative column, padded flight times may be skewering these statistics in favor of the airlines. Has the distance between Atlanta and New York somehow changed? We didn’t think so either. But Delta gives its flights an added 16 minutes to get there during peak times.

Also, the recession means fewer people are flying … and the recession also means those that are sit elbow-to-elbow as airlines have cut capacity. Finally, with fees for checked bags routine, more people are likely to put their bags in the overhead. So that leaves us with not only fewer planes in the system, but also fewer bags.

But technology tracks those bags better. American Airlines, for example, supplies its ramp workers with some 2,000 handheld scanners to scan each bag as it’s loaded. If the bag belongs on another flight, the scanner vibrates and flashes a warning. The airline says the rate of bags loaded onto wrong flights has dropped more than a quarter as a result.

What’s more, the new system provides much better directions throughout a shift to ground support workers driving baggage carts. In the case of a gate change or flight delay, drivers get real-time changes electronically rather than just a piece of paper of scheduled stops printed out at the beginning of a shift.

Bag transfers, however, are always the main reason for baggage snafus. Southwest Airlines, for example, has now started taking transfer baggage to connecting flights at its larger airports right as the unloading process takes place. The airline used to wait for all bags to be removed before taking care of the transfers.

After all, being on time in Chicago won’t mean much if my bags are in San Francisco.

About the Author

Steve Smith | Editor