Best and worst airline performance of 2019

Every month, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issues an Air Travel Consumer Report detailing the performance of the nation’s airlines. The 72-page report issued in February has specific details on how well the carriers did in December and, in some categories, during 2019 as a whole.

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 they were 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 highest percentage of 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, 87.6 percent of its flights arrived on time in December and 87.7 percent arrived on time throughout 2019. In fairness, it operated at only 22 U.S. airports in December, 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, was Delta. Some 83 percent of its flights into 148 airports arrived on time in December, and 83.5 percent arrived on time during 2019. Seatle-headquartered Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) which was third for all of 2019 at 81.3 percent, was No. 8 for December with74.2 percent on-time arrivals. Bargain carrier Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) was fourth for the year at 80.2 percent but No. 5 for the month, at 77.9 percent. Sprit Airlines (NASDAQ:SAVE) was No. 5 for the year at 79.5 percent but No. 3 in December at 81.2 percent.

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

Allegiant Air (NASDAQ:ALGT) was No. 6 for the year at 78.7 percent but No. 9 for December at 73.6 percent. American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) had the year's 7th best record at 77.4 percent, but the No. 4 slot for December at 78.3 percent. United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) was No. 8 for 2019 at 75.2 percent and No. 6 for December at 75.9 percent. jetBlue Airways (NASDAQ:JBLU) occupied the No. 9 slot for the year at 73.5 percent and the No. 10 slot for December at 66.7 percent. Frontier Airlines (NASDAQ:FRNT) was last in 2019 at 73.1 percent and No. 7 for December at 75.3 percent of on-time arrivals.

On-time departures were not reported by carrier in the 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. Spirit and Delta tied for the best record percentage-wise, with 0.6 percent of flight operations cancelled. A facet I found interesting was that Delta main-line operations had only 26 of more than 81,000 flight opeartions cancelled - statistically 0.0 percent -- while its branded code-share partners has 1.4 percent cancelled. jetBlue and Allegiant tied for third with 0.7 percent, Hawaiian's network was fifth at 0.9 percent, American and Southwest tied for sixth at 1.0 percent, Frontier was No. 8 at 1.1 percent, United came in at No.9 at 1.6 percent and Alaska was No. 10 at 1.9 percent.

Mishandled baggage

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

American Airlines continues its grasp on the bottom rung of the nation's airlines when it comes to mishandled bags, with 8.86 bags per 1,000 being “mishandled” in December. By the numbers, that’s a 0.00886 percent chance your bag will be misdirected, lost, or otherwise mishandled; not quite 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 1.84 bags per 1,000 misdirected. Frontier was No. 2 with 4.42 misdirected bags per 1,000, followed by Hawaiian (4.65), Southwest (4.88), Spirit (5.02), jetBlue (5.19), Delta (5.93), Alaska (7.84), United (7.85) and American.

The rankings for all of 2019 were similar. Allegiant was No. 1 (1.75 bags per 1,000) followed by Frontier (4.20), Southwest (4.40), Hawaiian (4.45), Delta (4.69), Spirit (4.76), Alaska (5.24) jetBlue (5.53), United (6.8) and American (8.48 bags per 1,000).

Denied boardings

The report also lists the number of voluntary and involuntary denied boardings. Because there is a wide range of reasons a passenger might voluntarily give up their seat, I believe it most telling to focus on those who had no choice.

In that category, Hawaiian Airlines had NO involuntary denied boardings during all of 2019. Delta had six out of more than 188 MILLION emplaned passengers but from there, things seem to go off the rails. United denied boarding to 97 passengers out of nearly 147 million, jetBlue denied 54 passengers their seat, Spirit gave the thumbs-down to 380 passengers. Alaska was next (865 passengers) followed by Southwest (3,108), Frontier (831), Allegiant (637) and cellar-dweller American (14,890). Percentage-wise, those numbers represent from 0.0 percent to 0.75 percent of passengers involuntarily denied boarding; statistically, a small percentage overall.

The report, which is available here, also has figures for mishandled scooters and wheelchairs; 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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