Southwest Airlines posting worst-in-industry on-time rates

Chicago TribuneDecember 31, 2013 

Some 13 Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways flights were delayed at Tampa International Airport late Wednesday afternoon. The airport was experiencing a day of delays.

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 Midway International Airport and the airline that will fly more passengers this holiday season -- and this year -- than any other airline. Southwest has almost 100 departures and 100 arrivals daily at Tampa International Airport. And 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 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, for example, 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 air markets more prone to delays, such as New York.

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