Airline and government officials begin a
series of meetings this week aimed at reducing congestion and
delays at New York's Kennedy Airport. We wish them luck.
The government is
focusing on New York, and Kennedy in particular, because of the
belief that airline overscheduling at Kennedy has led to increased
delays at that airport, exacerbating airspace congestion in the
greater New York area.
And, of course, what
affects New York affects the entire country.
The government has
numbers on its side. Only 63.3% of domestic flights at Kennedy left
within 15 minutes of their scheduled departure during August, down
from 72.1% a year earlier.
It is sometimes
mentioned that on-time performance at nearby LaGuardia and Newark
was just as bad.
Not so often is it
mentioned that departure delays in August were nearly as bad at
Chicago O'Hare, where the delay problem was allegedly "fixed" three
years ago after a similar government-airline powwow.
We look forward to
news from this week's meetings about measures to reduce delays at
New York, and we expect to see results for the near
We're not so
optimistic about the long-term prospects for the nation at large,
It was precisely 20
years ago that the DOT, in response to growing restlessness about
flight delays, started requiring the airlines to report their
on-time performance. The first report covered September 1987 and
the carriers averaged 77%, ranging from a high of 84.5% for
American to a low of 67.3 % for US Airways.
Some details of the
reporting rules were changed a few years later, making direct
comparisons imperfect. But broadly speaking, things never got much
In the ensuing 20
years, only one major airline outside of Hawaii has managed to
sustain an on-time average above 80%, and that is Southwest at
82.1%. The rest are in the mid- to high-70s.
The national average
over 20 years is 78.4%. Over the last 12 months, it fell to 72.7%.
It will be difficult, but not impossible, to gain back the lost 5.7
points, but that's probably as good as it's going to
If there's a lesson
in the DOT's 20-year database of on-time performance, it's probably
this: As much as we might want 90% or 100% on-time performance, we
are "content" with less. In fact, 75% to 80% seems about
Over the last two
decades, airlines and their passengers seem to have reconciled
themselves to a universe where about 75% to 80% of flights arrive
At that performance
level, consumers have been reasonably satisfied with the trade-off:
lots of flights to choose from at pretty reasonable fares, and a
75% to 80% chance of arriving on time.
When system on-time
performance gets much worse than that, passengers grumble and the
politicians begin to hear about it, as we have recently
But improving on-time
performance significantly above the industry's 20-year average will
require schedule reductions, costly investments in new
infrastructure and/or a system of peak-hour pricing that would
charge the airlines for serving congested airports at peak
All those scenarios
would raise prices, and experience has shown that given a choice
between higher fares and lower fares, passengers choose the latter,
even if it means a little delay.
Not a lot, but a