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Mulling the numbers of on-time performance

The numbers should be out next week. Come Tuesday (or Wednesday or Thursday), we’ll finally have the statistical proof from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to back up the general consensus that 2007 was an abysmal year in air travel.
Image: Airline delays
Statistics on airlines' performances, including on-time marks and baggage handling, will be released next week.Julie Jacobson / AP file

The numbers should be out next week. Come Tuesday (or Wednesday or Thursday), we’ll finally have the statistical proof from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to back up the general consensus that 2007 was an abysmal year in air travel.

Will the average on-time performance of the major U.S. airlines drop to its lowest level since the government began keeping track (in 1995) or will the industry dodge that dubious honor after a surprisingly smooth autumn? And what, pray tell, might the final tally tell us about what’s in store for the coming year?

Alas, trying to predict the year-end stats before they’re released is probably a fool’s game, and anyone who tried to suggest what those numbers might portend for 2008 would have to be absolutely, certifiably, hit-on-the-head-by-too-many-falling-carry-on-bags bonkers.

Oh, what the heck ...

2007: from bad to better to scraping the bottom
Through November, less than three quarters (74.23 percent) of the flights operated by the nation’s 20 largest airlines arrived on time last year (defined by DOT as operating within 15 minutes of their scheduled time). Continuing a downward trend from 2003 (82.51 percent), that was dangerously close to the all-time low of 73.5 percent set in 2000.

And yet, the airlines’ on-time performance swung up sharply during the fourth quarter, averaging a hair under 80 percent during September, October and November. Whether that was due to better weather, a DOT crackdown on chronically late flights or scheduling legerdemain (e.g., changing schedules and flight numbers) is open to debate.

What isn’t in question is that the numbers tanked in December as major storms rolled across the country. “Declaring victory may be premature,” says David White, spokesman for Flightstats, a Portland, Ore.-based company that collects real-time data on approximately 100,000 domestic and international flights per day.

According to Flightstats’ numbers (which are calculated differently than DOT’s and can’t be compared side by side), a mere 63.96 percent of flights operated by 41 airlines arrived on time in December, compared to 79.09 percent the month before. Among the worst offenders: American (58.6 percent), United (55.18 percent) and Midwest Air (a measly 41.25 percent).

Will that push 2007 below the dismal performance of 2000? We’ll know next week, but in the meantime, consider this: By the DOT’s calculations, airlines need to post an average on-time performance of just 65.33 percent or better in December to avoid taking top honors in the worst-year-ever contest. Even during last winter’s February meltdown, the industry managed to eke out 67.26 percent.

Personally, I think they’re going to pull it out — but it’s going to be close.

2008: flight caps, congestion pricing and the elephant in the terminal
OK, so “2007 — not the worst year ever!” is hardly cause for celebration, but there’s still room for optimism: 2008 could be the year that turns things in the other direction. Improvements will be incremental — and they won’t resolve the industry’s more chronic problems — but the following factors might make flying a little less unpleasant this year.

Last month, DOT Secretary Mary Peters announced a plan to cap flights at JFK starting March 15. Under the plan, flights will be limited to 82–83 per hour vs. the roughly 100 flights that currently operate during peak hours. A similar proposal is in the works for Newark, as well.

Then, two weeks ago, DOT unveiled a proposal that would allow airports to base fees, not just on aircraft weight, but on time of day and volume of traffic. The goal is to prod the airlines to shift more flights to off-peak hours and/or fly bigger planes during peak hours. The agency is currently accepting comments on the proposal.

Needless to say, airline-industry advocates don’t like flight caps or congestion pricing — both are clearly Band-Aids on much bigger problems — but simply pointing out the government’s glacial progress on the proposed NextGen satellite-based air traffic control system isn’t exactly a solution, either.

Depending on how the proposals play out, the above plans could help reduce congestion at some of the most delay-prone airports in the country, which, in turn, will help the system nationwide. New runways at Dulles, O’Hare and Sea-Tac will also help, although they won’t debut until late in the year.

Of course, all of the above is blue-sky thinking and, in the end, may be trumped by the hulking elephant in the terminal: mergers. If the urge to merge turns to action, any improvements in on-time performance will evaporate faster than jet fuel on hot concrete.

And it doesn’t even matter if anything comes to fruition. Once any proposals are announced, the resulting uncertainty will set the stage for labor unrest, lousier service and even more delays. Factor in fuller planes and higher fares, and we may even find ourselves pining for the good old days of 2007.

At least that’s what I think. What do you think will happen? Let me know, and we can compare notes when the final numbers come out.