The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines in September

by Susan J. Aluise | November 15, 2012 10:06 am

The performance metrics of most U.S. airlines improved significantly and the number of consumer complaints continued to fall in September, according to the Department of Transportation’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report. The 15 airlines tracked by the report posted an on-time performance of 83.3% — worse than the 83.9% a year ago, but much better than August’s 79.1%.

Air travelers also could cheer the fact that there were no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights — and none of more than four hours on international flights — during the month. The government’s recent crackdown on such delays, which includes the threat of hefty fines, appears to be working.

Passengers of American Airlines (PINK:AAMRQ[1]) had far less to cheer about in September, however. American’s on-time performance plummeted to 58% in September as an ongoing labor dispute with its pilots reached its zenith.

Here’s the breakdown of September 2012’s best and worst airlines as measured by performance in four areas: on-time flights, flight cancellations, mishandled baggage and complaints:

Best On-Time Arrival Performance

1. Hawaiian Airlines (NASDAQ:HA[2]) — 96.4%

Hawaiian Airlines’ reliable on-time performance is beginning to look more like a Swiss train than a typical U.S. airline. HA not only held onto the top spot again in September, it boosted its performance from 92.8% a month earlier. Hawaiian appears to be an odds-on favorite to hold onto the coveted first-place ranking it has owned since 2004.

Runners up:

2. AirTran, a unit of Southwest (NYSE:LUV[3]) — 90.9%. Since LUV acquired AirTran, the carrier’s performance metrics have soared.

3. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL[4]) — 89.7%.  DAL’s on-time performance surged by nearly 6 percentage points in September, giving it a strong third-place finish.

4. Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK[5]) — 89.6%

5. U.S. Airways (NYSE:LCC[6]) — 87.3%. LCC improved its on-time performance from 82% in August.

How other major airlines stack up:

Southwest – 86.5%. This was a big on-time boost for LUV as well, which rose by nearly 7 percentage points over its August results.

American Eagle, a unit of American Airlines — 86.5%

Worst On-Time Arrival Performance

1. American Airlines — 58%

Not surprisingly, American’s on-time performance plummeted in September as the war of words between parent AMR and its pilots heated up. The airline, which has been working through bankruptcy since last November, had been in a contentious labor dispute with the Allied Pilots Assn., which represents the airline’s nearly 7,500 pilots.

The union contends that the slowdown wasn’t an organized effort by pilots. Regardless of the cause, American’s grim performance metrics in September likely helped drive the carrier and its pilots back to the bargaining table. The two sides on Monday announced a tentative agreement on a new contract[7], which the union’s board and pilots must still approve.

Runners up:

2. ExpressJet Airlines, a regional subsidiary of SkyWest (NASDAQ:SKYW[8]) — 81.0% While these on-time stats are nothing to write home about, ExpressJet’s numbers reflect an upward trend, gaining a 12-percentage-point improvement in the past two months.

3. United Continental (NYSE:UAL[9]) — 82%. UAL’s 10-percentage point gain over August reflects its success in fixing numerous systems glitches that wreaked operational havoc this summer.

How other major airlines stack up:

JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU[10]) — 82.8%

Fewest Flight Cancellations

1. Hawaiian Airlines — No cancellations in 6,005 scheduled flights — 0.0%

The winning combination of balmy weather and efficiency gave HA the edge in this key metric during September.

Runners up:

2. Virgin America — 3 cancellations in 4,629 scheduled flights — 0.1%

3. Frontier Airlines, subsidiary of Republic Airways Holdings (NASDAQ:RJET[11]) — 7 cancellations in 6,356 scheduled flights – 0.1%

How other major airlines stack up:

JetBlue — 26 cancellations in 18,147 scheduled flights — 0.1%

Delta — 115 cancellations in 61,038 scheduled flights — 0.2%

AirTran — 46 cancellations in 16,362 scheduled flights — 0.3%

Southwest — 345 cancellations in 89,927 scheduled flights — 0.4%

US Airways — 141 cancellations in 31,495 scheduled flights — 0.4%

Most Flight Cancellations

1. American Airlines — 1,304 cancellations in 41,825 scheduled flights — 03.1%.

As pilots called in sick and made a high volume of aircraft maintenance requests, scads of flights got canceled.

Runners up:

ExpressJet — 804 cancellations in 60,474 scheduled flights — 1.3%

SkyWest — 498 cancellations in 50,086 scheduled flights — 1%

How other major airlines stack up:

Mesa Airlines (NASDAQ:MESA[12]) — 92 cancellations in 10,193 scheduled flights — 0.9%

Alaska Airlines — 79 cancellations in 11,986 scheduled flights — 0.7%

American Eagle — 236 cancellations in 38,870 scheduled flights — 0.6%

United Continental — 257 cancellations in 42,806 scheduled flights — 0.6%

Fewest Mishandled Bags:

1. Virgin America — 0.76 reports per 1,000 passengers

Virgin America is beating its own industry-leading baggage-handling metrics, improving from August’s 1.06 rate. That translates into about one mishandled bag per 1,250 passengers and blows away the industry average of 2.70 per 1,000 passengers.

Runners up:

2. AirTran — 1.48 reports per 1,000 passengers

3. Delta Air Lines — 1.67 reports per 1,000 passengers

4. JetBlue — 1.73 reports per 1,000 passengers

How other major airlines stack up:

U.S. Airways — 1.83 reports per 1,000 passengers

Southwest — 2.59 reports per 1,000 passengers

Hawaiian Airlines — 2.64 reports per 1,000 passengers

Most Mishandled Bags:

American Eagle — 5.55 reports per 1,000 passengers

Feeder carriers usually have higher percentages of mishandled bags because of delays and challenging connections with legacy carriers. American Eagle’s mishandled bag rate actually improved slightly in September, but it has struggled in this category.

Runners up:

2. SkyWest — 4.76 reports per 1,000 passengers

3. ExpressJet — 4.36 reports per 1,000 passengers

4. Mesa Airlines — 3.83 reports per 1,000 passengers

How other major airlines stack up:

United Continental — 3.14 reports per 1,000 passengers

American Airlines — 3.01 reports per 1,000 passengers

Alaska Airlines — 2.99 reports per 1,000 passengers

Fewest Customer Complaints 

Southwest – 21 complaints in 8.2 million enplanements

Southwest rules when it comes to customer service, and passengers still have a very favorable impression of the airline – despite occasional glitches as it integrates its AirTran acquisition. LUV’s “Bags Fly Free” mantra has certainly helped generate goodwill, which goes a long way toward making passengers happy.

Runners up:

2. Alaska Airlines — 5 complaints in 1.5 million enplanements

3. AirTran — 7 complaints in 1.5 million enplanements

How other major airlines stack up:

Delta — 58 complaints in 9.4 million enplanements, a great improvement over August’s  130 complaints

Hawaiian — 8 complaints in 0.8 million enplanements

US Airways — 45 complaints in 4.2 million enplanements

Most Customer Complaints

1. United Continental — 211 complaints in 7.2 million emplanements

United managed to cut its total complaints by more than half in September to 211, great  progress since July’s 995. Although UAL’s performance was vastly improved in September, it still had more complaints than did American. That suggests either that United Continental’s customers are less inclined to cut the airline a little slack, or American’s customers are more understanding when it comes to things like bankruptcy and labor disputes. The trend lines here bear watching as UAL seeks to bounce back from the summer’s system glitches and other challenges stemming from the mega merger of United and Continental

Runners up:

2. American Airlines — 162 in 6.6 million enplanements

3. Virgin America — 8 complaints in 0.5 million enplanements

4. ExpressJet — 34 complaints in 2.7 million enplanements

How other major airlines stack up:

American Eagle — 18 complaints in 1.5 million enplanements

JetBlue — 24 complaints in 2,158,152 systemwide enplanements

US Airways — 45 complaints in 4.2 million enplanements

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Endnotes:
  1. AAMRQ: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=AAMRQ
  2. HA: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=HA
  3. LUV: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=LUV
  4. DAL: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=DAL
  5. ALK: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=ALK
  6. LCC: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=LCC
  7. tentative agreement on a new contract: http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/flights/2012/11/12/american-airlines-pilots-deal/1699139/
  8. SKYW: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=SKYW
  9. UAL: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=UAL
  10. JBLU: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=JBLU
  11. RJET: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=RJET
  12. MESA: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=MESA

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