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December 9, 2023
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We have processed the October 2021 on-time data and the results are not especially encouraging. US airlines cut back their schedules and moved a lot of people more efficiently.  But that’s where the good news ends – fewer aircraft in the sky didn’t seem to help on-time performance.  There has been no real progress in terms of getting where you want to be on time. 

Let’s start off with this table. It’s quite clear that we are back to the delays of before – and don’t fall for the 15-minute leeway.  The US airline industry average cost per operational minute is $85 for 2021.  Those average 14.5 minutes late arrival did not come free and that ignores the value of passenger time.  Moreover, 16.4% of 2021’s flights arrived more than 15 minutes behind schedule.  For an industry that, essentially, sells time this is not a great performance.

Take a look at the next table to get a sense of how US airports performed before, during, and after the pandemic. Here we see the Top 25 US airports be flights, in descending order by arrival times.  New York remains a mess.  In 2020 New York’s airports cut delays by about half, but here we are back to the bad old days. DFW also comes in for a spot of negative color – 2021 was its worst performance over the period tracked.  Look at the other airports in anything but green.  Across the board, US airports saw a return to past performance.

Who’s to blame for this? Airports blame airlines for overscheduling.  Airlines will blame airports for construction/non-construction/not enough construction.  It’s always the other guy.

Bob Mann, a former US airline executive had this to add: “It’s a continuation of the same story, despite the industry having had the ‘pressure off’ opportunity to remedy delays during the pause. In fact, the industry could have self-helped, by optimizing 4D full-route-of-flight trajectories, for two decades before its recent network pivots and ESG ‘come to greenwash’ moments. This ‘NowGen’ self-help would have reduced emissions while it reduced capital and operating expenses and captured latent utilization and revenue, in a virtuous cycle. 

Yet the industry has institutionally preferred to deflect, to ‘NeverGen’ ATC, to unsustainably expensive $10 per gallon SAF, to C-neutral by 2050, anything but immediately available self-help, while enduring $85 per minute direct delay costs, while inflicting a far greater customer loss of productivity and impact on GDP, as FAA IG, Senate, and many in academia have all concluded for more than a decade.  Self-help is the answer to how aviation delivers productivity benefits in a way that allows the industry to be financially sustainable as it reaches environmental sustainability. Why wait?

Cowen’s Managing Director has this comment: “Airlines may blame airports for not having enough space for them as they grow, and of course, airports blame airlines for overscheduling, but the airlines continually push back on construction projects as being too costly. Recently, in fact, Frontier and Allegiant announced they were leaving two airports, Newark Liberty and Cleveland, respectively, as being too costly to operate from. So, the problem is squarely on both shoulders. Too often the airports present the airlines with a plan, without necessarily knowing how the new plan will fit in with the airlines’ operations.

And so it goes.  Who will cut the Gordian Knot and solve this problem?

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Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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