Best and worst airline performance, September

Every month, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issues an Air Travel Consumer Report detailing the performance of the nation’s airlines. The 70-page report issued in November has specific details on how well the carriers did in September, the first month after the busy summer travel season.

On-time performance

One of the major measures of how well an airline performs is its on-time record. How many flights took off within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, and how many landed within 15 minutes of when it was supposed to arrive?

While the report provides the details for each individual airline including the smaller regional carriers that fly under a major’s banner, it’s most useful to look at the performance of a carrier’s entire network, which includes its branded codeshare partners. After all, if you bought your ticket through Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) and the plane says “Delta Connection,” you may not know (or care) that you’re actually being transported by one of Delta’s five codeshare partners. You bought Delta because you like it, trust it, or have most of your accrued miles with the airline, so the rest is just details.

The airline with the most on-time arrivals

That said, the nation’s most reliable airline or airline network for on-time arrivals was Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA). At all U.S. airports to which it flies, 90.2 percent of its flights arrived on time. In fairness, it operated at only 22 U.S. airports in September, many of which are in areas not often beset by bad weather. But still, the numbers are the numbers.

Second best, and best of the Big Three by a fairly impressive margin, was Delta. Some 88.2 percent of its flights into 225 airports arrived on time. Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) was third, at 88.1 percent across 88 airports. Bargain carrier Allegiant Air (NASDAQ:ALGT) was fourth at 84.1 percent across 110 airports followed by Spirit (NASDAQ:SAVE) at 83.8 percent at 50 airports.

Best on-time arrivals record of the Big Three legacy carriers

Seattle-headquartered Alaska Airlines was sixth at 83 percent at 97 airports followed closely by American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) at 82.7 percent across 238 airports. jetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) was No. 8 with 82 percent on-time arrivals at 67 airports followed by United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) at 79 percent at 237 airports and Frontier Airlines (NASDAQ:FRNT) at 78.8 percent on-time arrivals at 102 airports.

On-time departures were not reported by carrier in the September report but by airport. That makes sense when you consider that departure delays are, more often than not, a function of what’s happening at and around the airport in terms of traffic, weather delays, etc.


Another measure of airlines’ performance is the percentage of its flight operations that were cancelled. As measured by an airline’s whole network, Hawaiian and Delta tied for the best with 0.4 percent of their scheduled operations being called off, but some perspective is required here. Hawaiian had 7,600 flight operations scheduled for September while Delta had nearly 144,000.

Alaska was third with 0.9 percent cancelled followed by Southwest at 1.6 percent; American at 1.9 percent; jetBlue at 2.1 percent; United at 2.5 percent; Frontier and Allegiant at 2.5 percent each, and Spirit at 4.6 percent.

Mishandled baggage

What are the chances of your bags arriving when you do? Overall, pretty good, actually.

American Airlines had the worst record, with 6.47 bags per 1,000 being “mishandled.” By the numbers, that’s a 0.00647 percent chance your bag will be misdirected, lost, or otherwise mishandled; slight more than one-half of one percent.

However, I was apparently targeted by the Fickle Finger of Fate in 2018 on my way back from the Florida panhandle – on American. While I was heading to my home airport of Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA), my bag was taking a side trip to Santiago, Chile (SCL). I got it back a few days later with all my possessions intact and, in fairness, I should mention that American did right in terms of the courtesy it extended for my trouble.

The best in September was Allegiant, with 1.43 bags per 1,000 misdirected. Southwest mishandled 3.24 bags per 1,000 followed by Delta (3.71 bags), Hawaiian (4.02), Spirit (4.45), Frontier (4.94), Alaska (4.98), jetBlue (5.46) and United at 5.49 bags per 1,000.

Year-to-date rankings were similar. Allegiant was No. 1 (1.77 bags per 1,000) followed by Frontier (4.15), Hawaiian (4.32); Southwest (4.51), Delta (4.72), Spirit (4.84), Alaska (5.14) jetBlue (5.70), United (7.03) and American (8.82 bags per 1,000). Year-to-date numbers are likely higher because of the increased traffic during the summer travel season.

The report, which is available here, also has figures for mishandled scooters and wheelchairs; passengers denied boarding; consumer complaints (overall and by category); civil rights complaints (other than disability-related); incidents involving the loss, injury or death of animals during air transportation; and complaints about TSA activities and procedures.

Reports are issued approximately the 15th of each month and detail performance two months prior.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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