June 16, 2009

Itineraries

By SUSAN STELLIN

The latest government statistics show that the airlines had a 79
percent on-time record in April, an improvement over the more typical
75 percent rate.

What those figures do not reveal, though, is that just two-thirds of
the flights that take off or land in the United States are counted,
making the recent gain more of an estimate than an accurate measure of
the industry’s overall performance.

The Transportation Department requires only airlines earning more than
1 percent of domestic passenger revenue to report data about flight
delays, cancellations, mishandled bags or other service problems. But
that leaves out roughly 25 percent of all domestic flights, many
operated by regional carriers, as well as about 1.3 million
international flights.

Passenger advocates have been pushing for a more comprehensive and
accurate reporting system, arguing that the reporting requirement was
written when regional carriers operated fewer flights. Even airline
analysts acknowledge that the system is flawed.

“The data is anecdotal at best,” said Michael Boyd, president of the
Boyd Group aviation consulting firm. “The entire reporting system
reflects an airline industry that no longer exists. It’s not a reliable
system. That 1 percent number leaves out a lot of carriers that are an
integral part of the major carriers’ operations.”

Some of the carriers not included in the data are Spirit Airlines,
Virgin America, Midwest Airlines, Colgan Air, Mesaba Aviation (a
subsidiary of Northwest Airlines) and many regional partners of the
larger carriers.

According to the Regional Airline Association, its members operate 52
percent of all domestic flights in the United States, up from 43
percent in 2000. Many fly under names that passengers know as
Continental Connection, Delta Connection, Northwest Airlink, United
Express and US Airways Express.

As the regional carriers’ operations have grown, some have moved into
the group required to report statistics to the Transportation
Department, among them Atlantic Southeast, ExpressJet, Comair, Mesa and
SkyWest. Pinnacle Airlines reports data voluntarily and American Eagle
has been reporting statistics for years.

Nineteen carriers now submit data to the department, versus 10 airlines
in 2002.

“We are considering expanding the reporting,” said David Smallen, a
spokesman for the department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, but
he declined to specify a timetable.

When the department issued its rule in 2002 requiring the carriers to
begin reporting information about the causes of delays, the agency
exempted smaller carriers and code-share partners from the rule, citing
the cost burden. But the text of the rule stated, “The department
intends to revisit, at a later date, the issue of whether to expand the
air carrier universe for on-time reporting.”

At the time the department was considering the rule, the Air Transport
Association, which represents the nation’s largest carriers, submitted
comments urging the department to include smaller airlines in the
mandate.

The association said that the carriers exempt from the reporting
“contribute a disproportionate, higher number of airplanes to the
congestion mix since these airplanes generally have fewer seats.”

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said
via e-mail that the group had “no current formal position” on the
matter.

Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, said he
believed that adding more carriers to the statistics would not
“materially change the overall numbers.”

“Isn’t the 75 percent, which is now being captured, a big enough
sample?” he asked.

But the airlines point to even small gains in the on-time statistics,
and Congress and government agencies rely on the data to determine how
to address problems like delays.

In fact, adding more regional carriers to the reporting requirement may
significantly affect the statistics, since there is some evidence that
smaller planes may be subject to more or longer delays.

In comments filed with the department as it considered the 2002 rule,
the Regional Airline Association noted that regional carriers were
subject to “a high level of ground delays not experienced by major
carriers,” and aviation experts acknowledge that larger planes tend to
be given higher priority when airport backups occur.

The group FlyersRights has also been pressing the Transportation
Department to more closely monitor the reporting of long tarmac delays,
expand the requirement to include smaller carriers and collect better
data on the causes of delays.

According to the statistics, only 5 percent of all flight delays are
attributed to factors within the airlines’ control, which means that,
for a vast majority of delays, the carriers are not responsible for
accommodating passengers with refunds, hotel vouchers or flights on
other airlines. Most delays are attributed to national aviation system
issues, bad weather or a combination of the two.

But passengers continue to question the official data.

Teresa Chaisson and her daughter were on a Delta flight (operated by
Comair) from Washington Reagan to Kennedy Airport in New York on April
21, and spent more than five hours on the tarmac waiting to take off
before the flight was canceled around 11 p.m.

The official statistics say that the flight was canceled due to weather
— yet every other flight left Reagan airport that day — and that the
plane sat on the tarmac only for a little over three hours, not five.

“I would bet on my two kids’ lives it was definitely not that short a
duration,” Ms. Chaisson said. “There shouldn’t be any chance for
inaccurate reporting.”

Copyright 2009 – New York Times Company