Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Best and Worst Airlines of 2015: The annual scorecard of the nine biggest U.S. carriers shows surprising progress in air travel



The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
Jan. 13, 2016 1:32 p.m. ET


Customers have plenty of issues with airlines: how they shrink space while inflating fees, make upgrades harder, lose bags and strand passengers. But overall the industry is actually getting more reliable. It’s canceling fewer flights, staying on schedule more often and investing profits in better equipment and even more baggage handlers.

This year’s annual Middle Seat Scorecard, which ranks airline performance on seven different measures important to travelers, reveals progress in air travel. Delta Air Lines, which has led the reliability push at big airlines, continued its improvement. Southwest and United airlines had turnaround years, though United still lags behind many competitors. Alaska and Virgin America still lead the pack.

“We’ve come to recognize that completion factor—getting people from point A to B—is the most important metric,” says United vice chairman Jim Compton.

According to data compiled by GEE Operations Solutions, formerly called masFlight, about 80% of U.S. airline flights arrived at the gate no later than 14 minutes behind schedule—the DOT definition of on-time. That’s up from about 76% in 2014. The results include flights operated by regional partners for each major airline and international trips—a truer measure of what travelers can expect than DOT on-time data, which segregates performance of regional carriers from the bigger airlines that actually sell the tickets and counts only domestic flights.

GEE and FlightStats, flight-tracking firms that compiled data for The Wall Street Journal, also found that U.S. airlines canceled about 100 fewer flights a day, on average. The number of bags that were mishandled—late or lost—by the eight airlines included last year and this year dropped 9%, to 1.5 million for the 12 months ended Oct. 31, the latest period reported by DOT, compared with the same period a year earlier.

 Spirit Airlines, a Scorecard newcomer since the DOT only began reporting data on the low-fare, high-fee carrier in 2015, made its debut next-to-last, behind United but ahead of American. Spirit ranked worst among nine airlines in on-time arrivals and in “extreme” delays of 45 minutes or longer, according to GEE and FlightStats. Spirit also had the highest rate of customer complaints in the first nine months of 2015, the most-recent DOT data show.

Spirit says it plans a tight schedule to save money, leaving it little time to catch up when flights get delayed. Bad luck with weather last summer ended up biting the airline. In addition, first-time Spirit customers who book through travel agencies often don’t realize they’ll have to pay fees to reserve seats, stow carry-on bags in overhead bins or even get a glass of water, so they complain.

“If you fly on Spirit and don’t know what you’re getting into, you may be in for a surprise,” Spirit spokesman Paul Berry says.

United boosted its on-time performance and baggage handling and reduced cancellations and bumping passengers off overbooked flights. Its improvement moved it off the bottom of the overall rankings. But the airline has a long way to go to catch up to some rivals. It remained in the lower half of every category measured.

Mr. Compton says the airline focused on reliability, investing in everything from better software for managing cancellations to upgraded hand-held bag-tag scanners that alert ramp workers when a bag is on a tight connection.

The “cancel analyzer” software had the biggest impact, says Tracy Lee, United’s vice president for network operations. When bad weather is forecast, it looks at United’s schedule and other airlines and predicts how many flights a hub airport can accommodate in 30-minute blocks, and which flights United should cancel to minimize impact on passengers. The result is fewer cancellations: In January and February last year, United deiced more airplanes than the same two months of 2014, indicating weather was perhaps worse. But the airline canceled 17,000 fewer flights in those two months than a year earlier.

Delta has dramatically reduced cancellations and offered corporate accounts rebates if its on-time rate and cancellations fall below both American and United. United has followed with similar guarantees for corporate clients.

“The industry is raising the bar. It’s much more competitive today because to customers, reliability is really, really important,” Mr. Compton says.

Delta started its focus on reliability several years ago after sitting at the bottom of Scorecard rankings in 2010. The carrier has worked to reduce cancellations to record-low levels and is trying to become more predictable for customers when bad weather does hit. “You don’t see people stranded in line anymore at Delta counters,” says Dave Holtz, Delta’s senior vice president for operations.

Despite its strong operational performance in recent years, Delta still boosted its on-time percentage and reduced cancellations, mishandled bags and bumped passengers. “I like the fact that all airlines are improving,” Mr. Holtz says. “I’m fairly heartened by where we are as an industry compared to 10 to 15 years ago.”

Southwest, which operates more flights than any other big airline and struggled some with operations after its 2011 merger with AirTran Airways, also improved. After on-time rates dropped, Southwest overhauled its schedule starting in late 2014, building in more time on the ground between flights. Like United, it invested in better software to recover from storms faster.

The airline struggled with checked-baggage volume because it offers to transport bags free. But last year baggage handling improved: Southwest hired more runners to move bags to connecting flights as they come out of planes, rather than waiting for all bags to be taken off a flight before routing to connecting flights, says Steve Hozdulick, Southwest’s managing director of operational performance.

American’s merger with US Airways continued to affect operations last year. Until reservation systems merged in October, customers were still connecting from one airline to another, slowing baggage handling and leading to higher rates of complaints, says Robert Isom, American’s chief operating officer.

In addition, stormy weather hit the Dallas area hard in February, May and December. The airline didn’t go a single day in May without some flights diverting.

Last fall, the airline opened a new operations center combining staffs from the two airlines. “The hope is we’re into clearer skies here,” Mr. Isom says.

Hawaiian Airlines scores well in many of the seven categories studied, but isn’t included in the rankings because of its lack of exposure to mainland U.S. weather and congestion.

Spirit says the biggest reason it ends up on the bottom of on-time rankings is that it doesn’t build cushion into its schedule—it schedules flights for the actual time it takes to fly if everything goes correctly. That allows the airline to keep costs lower, since airlines typically pay crews the greater of actual time or scheduled time for each flight, and it lets Spirit schedule a few more flights with the same size fleet, since planes aren’t sitting on the ground as long.

“We just try to run our schedule as tight as we can,” Mr. Berry says.

In July, bad weather left a large number of Spirit pilots and flight attendants stuck in Chicago. Then a tropical storm moved into Texas, grounding flights there. “For about a four-day period, we were crippled,” Mr. Berry says.

When Spirit cancels flights, it can take longer than other airlines to rebook customers, since it flies only a couple of trips a day on many routes and most flights are full. It took six weeks to recover from the summer mess, Mr. Berry says.

Spirit has made changes to try to prevent a repeat, such as improving ways to contact pilots and flight attendants and better tracking whereabouts to make sure large numbers of passengers don’t end up at one particular airport.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.wsj.com


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