Southwest loses on-time performance record; feeling effects of hub airport operations


Southwest Airlines, the US industry leader in on-time arrivals since record keeping commenced in 1987, has slipped to eighth in the 12 months to Oct-2010 as it expands at congested airports such as New York LaGuardia and operates with record load factors. As a result, the carrier’s turnaround time has also reportedly increased from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.

The 2010 slump in on-time performance marks a blow for the carrier that was alone among the major airlines in posting a drop in on-time performance in the 12 months. Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said: “It is a priority for us to make improvements. We have actually added more complexity to our network, along with record loads, and have not seen a dramatic decrease in performance.”

Southwest also attributed its worsened on-time performance to the increase in passenger numbers with CEO Gary Kelly stating that the carrier has seen added traffic due to its policy of being the only US carrier that does not charge for a first or second checked baggage. 

During Nov-1010, Southwest handled 7.4 million passengers (+4.7%) with a load factor of 80.1% (+3.6 ppts). In Oct-2010, the carrier’s load factors stood at 81.7%, marking the highest load factors for an October in the carrier’s history. Upon the release of the carrier’s 3Q results in Oct-2010, the carrier added that it had produced record monthly load factors for 14 of the preceding 15 months.

Overall percentage of reported flight operations arriving on time and carrier rank, by month, quarter and database to date 

Hawaiian, AirTran and United the best performers

While Southwest has maintained an on-time arrivals level at more than 80% for nine consecutive years, rivals’ gains have helped put the industry on course for its most punctual year since 2003.  

In Oct-2010, the reporting carriers recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 83.8%, up from the 77.3% rate in Oct-2009 but down from Sep-2010’s 85.1% level. The best performing carriers were Hawaiian (95.4%), as usual, followed by AirTran (90.4%) and United (89.9%). New York JFK-based JetBlue (76.7%), Southwest Airlines (77.5%) and Comair, a Delta Connection carrier (78.0%) had the worse ratings in the month, meaning Southwest finished 17th out of 18 airlines in Oct-2010 OTP, its worst monthly ranking in at least 12 years.

Another Southwest Airlines spokesperson Ashley Dillon added: "Record load factors during the month contributed to our decisions to delay aircraft and hold for customers who we wouldn't have been able to accommodate if we had cancelled flights. We also know they want us to complete their flight so they can get to their destination, even if delayed. It's a delicate balance we are always mindful of and seek to improve."

Weather played the biggest role in the delays: 33.06% of late flights were delayed by weather in Oct-2010, down from 41.14% in Oct-2009. Weather has again played havoc in Nov-2010 and Dec-2010 with flooding, heavy wind and snow falls all creating flight delays and cancellations in the US.

Overall causes of delays: Oct-2010

No tarmac delays of more than three hours

Meanwhile, the largest carriers cancelled 0.97% of scheduled domestic services in Oct-2010, down from 0.99% in Oct-2009. In Oct-2010, the carriers filing on-time performance data reported that 0.03% of their scheduled flights had tarmac delays of two hours or more, down from 0.06% in Sep-2010. 

Also in Oct-2010, the nation’s largest airlines reported no flights with tarmac delays of more than three hours, down from 11 flights in Oct-2009, with a slight reduction in the rate of cancelled flights. This is the first month that there were no tarmac delays of more than three hours by the reporting carriers since the DoT began collecting more comprehensive tarmac delay data in Oct- 2008.

There were only 12 tarmac delays of more than three hours reported in the May-2010 to Oct-2010 period by the 18 airlines that file on-time performance data with DoT, compared with 546 during the same five-month period of 2009. The new tarmac delay rule prohibits US airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers, with exceptions allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic

Fewer mishandled bags, passenger complaints

In Oct-2010, the US airlines posted a mishandled baggage rate of 2.91 reports per 1000 passengers. The rate was 3.51 per 1000 passengers in Oct-2009. Southwest ranked 10th in mishandled baggage in Oct-2010, compared with sixth in Oct-2009, ninth in terms of denied boardings in 3Q2010 and had 21 customer complaints in Oct-2010 representing 3.5% of the total complaint in the month. However, on a per 100,000 enplanement basis, Southwest had the fewest complaints at 0.22 followed by Mesa (0.27) and Skywest (0.38). The highest complains were at Delta (1.61), JetBlue (1.30) and United (1.24). This compares with the industry average of 0.95.

Passengers also complained less about airline service in Oct-2010, filing 749 complaints with the DoT, which is 16.5% fewer than in Oct-2009.

OTP a growing concern

As Southwest evolves its strategy to place a greater emphasis on the business segment, the carrier’s customer service ethic becomes increasing important. While the LCC benefits from being the only US major carrier not to charge for first or second baggage, its recent OTP performance is concerning. With load factors remaining at all-time highs and a continued expansion into key and delay-prone hub airports, the carrier needs to make improvements to ensure its uncharacteristically poor performance does not continue.

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