Those On-Time Flight Numbers? They’re Expected to Decline Next Year
September 18, 2017
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  • Each month the Department of Transportation announces the percentage of domestic flights that arrived on time, and the number has generally been rosy so far this year, ranging from 76 to 83 percent of the flights tracked.

    But that record is not likely to continue. Starting in 2018, the government will finally begin counting flights operated by smaller carriers and the major airlines’ regional partners, most of which are not currently included in the monthly statistics. Since those flights are more prone to delays — and account for more than half of all domestic flights — the industry’s overall on-time record is expected to fall.

    “It’s going to come down really dramatically, and it’s also going to change the way the big carriers treat their regional partners,” said Charles Leocha, chairman of Travelers United and a member of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, which recommended the Transportation Department improve its flight data.

    “I think it’s going to provide consumers with a much more realistic view of how the major airlines are working,” Mr. Leocha said.

    In recent years, Delta Air Lines and American and United Airlines have increasingly relied on regional partners like Republic and Mesa Airlines to operate flights from their main hubs to smaller airports. These flights are sold by the major carriers (through brands like Delta Connection, American Eagle or United Express), so some passengers may not realize that they are flying on a different carrier — or that if the flight is late, it may not be counted in the government’s statistics.

    But that skews the on-time rankings that the Transportation Department publishes each month, and misleads passengers about how well each carrier meets its schedule.

    For instance, for domestic flights in July, the month covered by the government’s most recent report, Delta is listed as having an 83 percent on-time arrival rate, compared with 64 percent for JetBlue. But the government counts nearly all of the domestic flights operated by carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, which do not rely on regional partners, and just 38 to 55 percent of the domestic flights marketed by Delta, American and United.

    The Transportation Department acknowledged this imbalance when it announced the expanded reporting requirement, noting that its rankings “have a significant impact on a carrier’s image and brand identity, which in turn, has a potential effect on the decision making of many consumers when deciding to purchase air transportation.”

    Even so, it took many years for the government to finally improve the accuracy of its flight statistics, an idea that has been under consideration since at least 2009. Smaller carriers and regional partners were originally exempt because of the cost of collecting the data in a more manual, paper-based era. But in 2011, the Government Accountability Office recommended that the Transportation Department collect and share more comprehensive on-time performance data, including flights on regional carriers to smaller airports. The G.A.O. noted that these flights have higher rates of delays and cancellations.

    The department began the process of broadening the pool of reporting carriers in 2011, but it did not become official policy until late 2016, as part of a new set of rules, Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections III.

    The improved statistics, which should cover more than 99 percent of domestic flights, will be published in the department’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Report “as soon as possible” after next February, according to David Smallen, director of public affairs for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

    “We are in the process of determining the best way for the ATCR to display data collected under the new rule,” Mr. Smallen wrote in an email responding to a question about whether it would separately list the on-time rate for the major carriers’ mainline and partner flights — or combine the results.

    In addition to sharing flight performance data with the government, United States airlines are currently required to post on their websites how often each domestic flight they sell arrived on-time in the most recent reporting period, although this information can be difficult to find.

    Travelers booking with Delta, JetBlue or United have to click the flight number for the flight they are considering to see how often it arrives on schedule. American displays this information if a customer clicks the word “details” to learn more about a flight in its search results, while United shows it if an online shopper clicks text indicating a flight’s duration (like “1h 48 m”).

    Mr. Smallen said the Transportation Department does not have any proposals pending to address how airlines display this information to consumers, or to expand the reporting requirement to include international flights.

    What is also not changing is how the industry defines “on time.” A flight is officially counted as on time if it arrives less than 15 minutes late.

    But the Transportation Department’s latest set of passenger protection rules includes a few other provisions meant to help clarify information for travelers. Airlines and ticket agents are now required to disclose on the first screen of results for a flight search if a flight is operated by another carrier — instead of later in the booking process. The department will also start collecting data from smaller carriers and regional partners about oversold flights and mishandled baggage.

    To illustrate how long even small changes can take, Mr. Leocha pointed out that a 2016 law requiring airlines to refund checked baggage fees for luggage that is not delivered to a passenger within 12 hours of a domestic flight’s arrival (or 15 hours for an international flight) has not taken effect yet because the Transportation Department is still working on the rules.

    “Just having a law doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “They still have to write the rules.”

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