US on-time performance improves. Good news, sort of


There is good news for American travelers. Data just released confirms that, according to the metrics used by the US Government, airlines performed at stellar levels in the most recently released report. So, problem solved. Air travel is making a comeback and the future portends a new generation of satisfied customers. Or not...

What got better

The Department of Transportation measures operational integrity: schedule adherence, (over) booking integrity, baggage delivery and complaints. These are hard targets that are easily quantified and can be reliably compared and measured. They have value and provide insights into the ways that airlines are run, as well as their general concern for passenger welfare.

Much like New York City tackling its crime problem some decades ago by cracking down on subway toll evaders, airlines that say they will honour the commitment to be on time will be more likely to also be attentive to other passenger concerns.

As we have pointed out in the past, United has undertaken a program to re-energize its passenger service overall (which others have emulated) and one of the goals was to improve on-time performance. There is hope in that during December, United performed exceptionally well, with a 90% on-time rate, leading to the conclusion that other areas of service delivery may also see improvement.

The limits of glee

But while we may applaud improving on-time performance, the picture is much more muddled than first glance might infer. First, much of the problem with punctuality stemmed from the CRS displays that ranked flight availability according to total elapsed time. Airlines parried by making fanciful estimates of reality in order to move up on the screen.

However, as more travelers compare flights on price or other criteria, the need to be the fastest, and therefore displayed first, has waned. Airlines are actually lengthening published flight times, which is a defacto method of making sure that more aircraft arrive on time.

As an example, in 1980, American’s Flight 21 from New York to Los Angeles had a published departure time from JFK of 1800 with an arrival at LAX at 2055—at total elapsed time of 5h55min. Today, the same flight departs JFK at 1900 and is scheduled to arrive at 2250—6h40min enroute.

Were B747s really that much faster than B767s?

Of course not, but ATC and general congestion has increased, and predicting a 5h55min journey only led to repeated late arrivals. And, as noted, today’s travelers are far more interested in the comparative cost of the journey rather than its duration.

Are the metrics that important?

Furthermore, the DoT statistics classify late as beginning at the 16th minute. While few want to be delayed for hours, most travelers probably do not get upset over such a short delay—especially since we can consult our cell phone as to an aircraft’s actual arrival time and head to the airport based on current information.

The statistics also rank overbookings and “bumping” rates. But in an age when there are websites that provide advice as to how to book in order to get bumped—and thus obtain the package of goodies that comes with denied boarding—perhaps this is not the hardship that it once was. At least not for everyone.

There is probably more rejoicing at the reduction in lost bags. No matter how one feels about delays or denied boarding, there is probably no one who is indifferent to lost baggage. Especially at a time when the carriage of baggage is subject to fees, improved performance in bag handling is a welcome byproduct.

Unfortunately, the real problems that are making air travel akin to root canal therapy are not covered by the DoT’s metrics. They do, of course, rank the number of complaints received, but the travellers who take the time to report incidents is a tiny fraction of the travelling public. The incredible popularity of Dave Carroll’s broken guitar saga is some indication of the frustration and indifference experienced by ordinary travellers. While widely reported in the media, the government does not officially track or rank staff indifference or rudeness, dirty aircraft and shrinking on-board space/services, or the widespread unease that is part of invasive airport security.

It is these recurring problems that form the basis of customer dissatisfaction—not the 16th or even 21st, minute of delay. And while we can and should celebrate better operational performance as a harbinger of greater attention to detail, an on-time flight without a smile is still likely to rank as an unsatisfactory customer experience.

The real measure of improvement will come when US airlines again surpass the Internal Revenue Service in popularity. That will be real cause for celebration.

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