CHICAGO – A major airline suddenly can’t seem to get passengers to their destinations on time, posting worst-in-the-industry on-time rates.
But, surprise. It’s not an airline that cynics love to hate, mega-carriers United Airlines or American Airlines. And it’s not an ultra-discounter like Spirit Airlines.
It’s perennial consumer favorite Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier out of Chicago’s Midway Airport and the airline that will fly more passengers this holiday season — and this year — than any other airline. It typically sits atop customer satisfaction ratings, with such consumer-friendly policies as free checked bags and no fees to change a flight.
But recently, Dallas-based Southwest has had the worst on-time rates in America — a shocking turn for an airline that once topped the industry in punctuality year after year and regularly bragged about it.
For the second consecutive month, Southwest has placed at the bottom of the monthly on-time statistics, according to data reported to the Department of Transportation. It marks the first time since at least 1995, when the current DOT reporting system began, that Southwest ranked last for any month.
At Midway, where Southwest has more departures than at any other airport, the airline’s on-time rate this year has been abysmal, with an average of only two of three flights departing on time, according to the most-recent DOT statistics.
It’s certainly part of the reason that Midway, as an airport, has an on-time departure rate this year of 68.7 percent, worst in the United States through the first 10 months of the year. That’s down significantly from its 77 percent on-time rate last year.
Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, said it was surprising to see Southwest at the bottom of the heap of any consumer ranking.
“It’s unusual,” he said. “Although they have transitioned in recent years to more of a revenue-focused airline, they’ve always been an airline that got the operation right.”
The reasons for Southwest’s on-time woes are many. For one, Southwest has a penchant for scheduling flights close together, giving little wiggle room when flights encounter weather problems, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Hudson Crossing.
“Southwest schedules its planes so tightly, to maximize efficiency and keep fares low, that even a slight delay early in the morning can snowball into a larger delay through the balance of the day,” he said.
And through the years, Southwest has expanded into congested markets more prone to delays, such as New York.
Because Southwest is not strictly a hub-and-spoke airline, and doesn’t fly as many back-and-forth flights as major network carriers do, its spare aircraft are less often in places where they’re needed, which can lead to delays, Kaplan said.
Meanwhile, airline competitors have slowly improved their on-time rates, raising the bar on performance.
But the reason for the recent terrible on-time rates — namely August, September and October — has been “a combination of unexpected summer weather and changes made to our schedule,” said Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish.
“We are aware of the pain-points in our network, and we continue to work on schedule adjustments that will improve our future performance,” he said.
In an attempt to improve its on-time record, Southwest recently changed its schedule, extending for some routes the total time it allots for such tasks as flying, taxiing, loading and unloading passengers, and preparing the aircraft for the next flight.
But delays on Southwest probably will continue in the near term.
“Adjustments take several months to implement, due to the complexity of our schedule,” Parrish said.
“But we do expect to see improvement by early next year.”
Brett Snyder, a blogger at CrankyFlier.com and operator of a small travel concierge service, said he has noticed a problem lately with Southwest flights being delayed.
“It’s been worse in the last month from our perspective, though to be fair, we’re a pretty small snapshot of the entire picture,” he said.
Southwest’s performance woes are a far cry from the mid-1990s, when for five years running it was tops in on-time performance, baggage handling and low complaint rates. It bestowed on itself the “Triple Crown” award for excelling on those measures that are important to consumers.
Fast-forward 20 years, and the picture is quite different. In October, it operated 37 of 41 flights the DOT flagged as being late 70 percent of the time or more.
In September, Southwest Flight 3679 from Midway to St. Louis was late a whopping 82 percent of the time by an average of 54 minutes.
The same flight number from Cleveland to Chicago was late 68 percent of the time, according to DOT figures.
“We are working diligently to provide our customers in Chicago and across the country the travel experience they know and love on every Southwest flight, every day,” Parrish said.
Kaplan said the good news is that the delays are not a result of the typical reasons, such as work slowdowns by unhappy union workers or merged airlines combining reservation systems.
“My guess is that this will probably take care of itself, because there’s not the obvious things that have caused operational issues at other airlines,” he said.
And consumers don’t seem to be too mad.
During September and October, when Southwest had the worst on-time rates, its rate of complaints filed by consumers was lowest and second-lowest in the industry, respectively.