If you traveled to Japan last year, one thing is nearly as certain as a having dined on sushi during your stay: The flights there and back arrived on time.
What's particularly special about Japan Airlines' 91 percent on-time record is that it achieved this with more than 215,000 flights during the year. Only one other airline in the top 10, Lufthansa, had more flights (386,000), and all the rest of the top 10 have flight volumes in the mid-hundred-thousand range. The average for the top 10 is 174,000 flights.
Almost as impressive, but falling just outside the top 10, is Southwest, in the 11th spot. Southwest topped our list of America's most on-time airlines and, according to FlightStats, achieved its 82.5 percent on-time rating (83 percent according to the Department of Transportation) with 1.1 million flights in 2009.
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It's the busiest airline FlightStats tracks. The next closest is American at 692,000 flights. Most are in the 200,000s-300,000s.
While Southwest's on-time record is impressive, it doesn't necessarily indicate a unique approach to the business. "There are differences in the efficiencies about how the airlines are run," says David Stempler, an aviation lawyer and president Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy organization in Chevy Chase, Maryland, but he notes that there are several factors weighing on a flight's arrival time, beyond the carrier's control — inclement weather is chief among them.
Yet a massive airline such as Southwest could crack the top 10 in the coming years should it adopt the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) system (essentially, GPS for airplanes), as part of the FAA's plan to upgrade the nation's air-traffic control system by 2018. The computer-guided system will open up more American airspace for more flights on efficient, time- and fuel-saving routes, and will also help pilots navigate around weather patterns.
Behind the numbers
For our list of the world's most on-time airlines, we used FlightStats' Airport and Airline Arrival Performance report for 2009 released Jan. 5, 2010. Data for FlightStats' Airport and Airline Arrival Performance report were collected from airports, airlines, flight reservation systems and supplementary data collectors around the world.
Flights were considered on time if they made it to their destination within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time. FlightStats does not cover every airport and carrier in the world (it is currently expanding its coverage in Latin and South America). There is no single source or international standard for collecting and evaluating on-time performance data. The airlines considered for this list are the top 50 carriers by number of flights scheduled globally.
Two U.S. airlines made the top 10, Horizon Air and Chautauqua Airlines, though nether made our list of America's most on-time airlines, which was created using data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Horizon, which flies primarily in the Pacific Northwest, is too small to have made that list (we required that they operate out of at least 20 of America's 31 busiest airports), but FlightStats says that, of 140,000 flights last year, Horizon's planes arrived as scheduled nearly 86 percent of the time.
Chautauqua didn't make the other list because it doesn't report its data to the DOT. Even if you've never heard of the carrier, chances are that if you fly extensively throughout the U.S., then you've traveled with Chautauqua. The carrier operates several hundred regional flights each day for American, Continental, Delta, Midwest, US Airways and United. In 2009 Chautauqua operated more than 170,000 flights, arriving as scheduled nearly 85 percent of the time.
Then again, Chautauqua has the advantage that it's operating out of less-busy airports rather than major hubs. Delays often have to do with flight volume; the busier the airport, the more likely the chance of a delay, no matter what airline you choose.
"In terms of looking at reducing delays, we do that based on the forecasted traffic in the system," says Victoria Cox, SVP of operations planning for the FAA. But if in the next few years more people choose to fly than is forecasted and the carriers need to add more flights, airline delays will remain business as usual for a long time to come.
© 2012 Forbes.com