Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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The Good, The Bad and The Airline Data
February 25, 2016 -- More than 30 years on the road has convinced me of one thing: business travel is a selfish pursuit. We wish our fellow travelers well, of course, but we're mostly interested in our own comfort and our personal productivity.

It's why some of us continue flying on an airline that other frequent flyers consider loathsome. We're completely obsessed with our own treatment and we naturally rate airlines based on our personal experiences with it.

What the experts say don't matter. What talking heads like me say is irrelevant. What our fellow road warriors say is meaningless. We know what we like and what we hate. We're loyal to what works for us and steer clear of the carriers that have done us wrong.

Still, there are objective standards. The arbiter of accuracy when it comes to the basics on-time operation, lost bags and the like is the monthly U.S. Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report. The most recent edition, published last week and covering flights in 2015, offers a statistical stroll through the industry that is worth a few minutes of your time. What appears below is the combined wisdom of millions of flights and tens of millions of our fellow flyers. I understand your mileage may vary.

Traveling through time

If on-time arrivals are what you seek, Delta Air Lines would have you believe that it is the carrier of choice. But that's not exactly true. Delta's record of timely flights--85.9 percent arriving within 15 minutes of their published scheduled--is well above the 2015 industry average of 79.9 percent. Yet it's only good for third place among the 13 carriers tracked by the Transportation Department. Even if you discount the industry leader, Honolulu-based Hawaiian Airlines (88.4 percent on-time in 2015), for geographic reason, Delta is still bested by Alaska Airlines. Seattle-based Alaska racked up an 86.4 percent rating.

Delta does outperform its "legacy carrier" competitors, however. American Airlines finished fourth in 2015 at 80.3 percent. United Airlines finished eighth with a 78.2 percent rating.

Curse of the regionals

Be warned: Those numbers exclude the generally poor on-time performance of the legacy airlines' commuter carriers. These so-called "regional" airlines handle about half of the industry's flying and are listed separately by the DOT. Envoy, the wholly owned commuter carrier of American Airlines, finished 11th out of 13 carriers with an awful 74.1 percent rating. Expressjet, which operates flights for Delta, American and United airlines, finished in the ninth slot and managed an on-time rating of 77.9 percent. SkyWest, which flies for all three legacy lines and Alaska Air, too, managed a sixth place finish, basis points below the industry average at 79.7 percent.

If it was just poor on-time performance that plagued regionals, you could charitably suggest it was an anomaly. But it isn't. According to DOT figures for 2015, regional airlines also finished dead last in baggage-handling efficiency and they involuntarily "bumped" the most passengers holding valid tickets.

For 2015, the industry as a whole "mishandled" the checked bags of 3.24 of every 1,000 flyers. But Skywest (4.05), ExpressJet (5.06) and Envoy (8.52) screwed up much more frequently. They were also more likely to deny you a seat. In 2015, that happened to fewer than one flyer in 10,000 (0.76). But SkyWest's "bump" rate was more than twice as high (1.78 per 10,000 flyers) and ExpressJet (1.86) and Envoy (2.35) were worse.

Executives at regional airlines claim that their numbers are skewed because their big-carrier patrons sluff off missed connections on them. That leads, they insist, to less timely operations and more baggage and ticketing snafus. There's certainly some truth to the assertion, but an undeniable fact remains: if your itinerary includes a regional carrier for one or more segments, you chances of being delayed, losing your bag or being denied your seat increase sharply.

The guys in the middle

The so-called alternate carriers run about the middle of the performance pack. Virgin America ranks fifth in on-time efficiency, literally at the industry average of 79.9 percent on-time. It had the fewest mishandled bags in the industry, however, with only .84 reports per 1,000 flyers. It ranked third in denied boarding, bumping just .12 passengers per 10,000 flyers.

For its part, JetBlue Airways ranked just behind Virgin America in baggage-handling efficiency, with 1.81 reports per 1,000 passengers. And it can boast that you are least likely to be involuntarily bumped from your seat. JetBlue handled 31.9 million passengers in 2015 and only 73 were denied a seat, a miniscule ratio of .02 per 10,000 flyers. JetBlue's Achilles heel? On-time performance. It ranked 10th of 13 airlines, operating just 76 percent of its flights on schedule. It's true that JetBlue's busiest airports (Logan in Boston and JFK in New York) are plagued with snowy winters and stormy summers, but the carrier's woes are more internal than meteorological. JetBlue does a poor job boarding and disembarking passengers and that drags down its timeliness.

Southwest Airlines, which offers two free checked bags to all flyers and eschews change fees, is also a mid-level operator. It came in seventh in timeliness (79.7 percent), eighth in baggage-handling (3.31 reports per 1,000 flyers) and tenth in denied boarding, bumping 1.08 passengers per 10,000 flyers.

The high cost of 'low' fares

Spirit Airlines and its clone, Frontier Airlines, contend their "ultra low fare carrier" (ULCC) model allows customers to save money because flyers only purchase the products and services they want. I'd argue that the ULCC operators are bait-and-switch hucksters that invent all sorts of fees to offset low advertised prices.

But what is not at issue is how awful they are as airlines.

Spirit and Frontier, have the least spacious standard coach seats in the United States with as little as 28 inches of legroom compared to the 30-32 inches offered by competitors. Spirit is also the worst airline for on-time operations in the nation, finishing in 13th and last at 69 percent, 9.9 percent lower than the industry average. Frontier is only a bit better in twelfth place at 73.2 percent.

Spirit and Frontier are also the most complained about airlines. The Transportation Department received 12,771 official passenger complaints in 2015 for an industry average of 1.9 gripes per 100,000 flyers. More than 24 percent of the total was directed at Spirit and Frontier. Spirit's complaint rate 11.73 was more than six times the industry average. Frontier, at 7.86 gripes per 100,000 customers, was more than four times worse than the industry average.

A note about airfares...

DOT fare compilations lag behind the industry's operational statistics, so a separate report only covers the third quarter of 2015. The agency pegged the average domestic fare at $372 in 2015, down more than 6 percent from the third-quarter of 2014. But the "average fare" which no one actually pays, of course is misleading. Why? The DOT says fares in 2015 represented only 75 percent of the revenue that airlines extracted from us for flights. The rest was fees for checked bags, ticket changes and other items. As recently as 1995, however, fares represented 87.6 percent of the price we paid to fly.


This column is Copyright 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.