It’s an axiom of the airline industry that on a typical day, operational performance is best in the morning then goes downhill as difficulties related to weather, mechanical problems and other issues back up the network.

However, some airlines recover faster than others in the evening as they reduce their number of flights, according to figures provided by the flight-data service company FlightStats, and the data suggests that some of this is due to operating hub-and-spoke versus point-to-point scheduling models.

On-time arrival data from January through August of this year for six U.S. airlines shows that in each case the airline’s on-time percentage peaked by 7 a.m. before declining into the early evening hours. For example, American began its days with an on-time performance of 89.7% during the 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. hour. That number declined steadily thereafter before bottoming out at 71.2% between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

FlightStats data showed a similar pattern for the other carriers, including United, Delta, JetBlue, Spirit and Southwest. But comparative results among the carriers began diverging at night after some airlines began delivering improved on-time results more dramatically and earlier than others.

Delta, for example, had its lowest hourly on-time percentage during the first eight months of this year between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., with a figure of 77.5%. But the carrier improved its performance to 83.7% by the 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. hour, when it operated almost two-thirds fewer flights than its midafternoon peak.

Conversely, Southwest did not hit its lowest performance hour until between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.

In fact, among the six carriers, each of the legacy airlines saw its worst on-time performance earlier in the evening than Southwest, Spirit and JetBlue did.

American and Delta each hit bottom between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. United had its worst on-time results between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., JetBlue and Spirit got their worst results one hour later, and Southwest’s was an hour after that.

In an interview, FlightStats senior vice president of airlines Jim Hetzel attributed the faster evening recovery by the Big Three carriers to their hub-and-spoke operating models.

While Southwest especially, but also Spirit and JetBlue, often fly an aircraft from point A to point B then on to additional cities, American, Delta and United are more likely to fly from a hub to a second location, then return the aircraft to the hub.

“If you get a delay early on, that delay is going to get carried over from point A to point B to point C to point D,” Hetzel said of the point-to-point operations.

Nevertheless, point-to-point operations have certain advantages over the out-and-back flying of hub-centric airlines, according to Seth Kaplan, managing editor of the newsletter Airline Weekly.

For one thing, Southwest can offer a more diverse combination of routes than its legacy rivals.

In addition, point-to-point travel enables carriers to move their planes with shorter turnaround times. In large part, Kaplan said, that’s because airlines that run out-and-back networks try to schedule surges of similarly timed flights into and out of their hubs. Doing so enables them to offer convenient connections to more flyers. But timing flights under such a model means a carrier sometimes has to hold a plane on the ground in order to align with a surge.

Unencumbered by such concerns, point-to-point operations typically move their planes out of each airport more quickly.

Brett Snyder, who runs the aviation blog Cranky Flier, said the shorter ground times that point-to-point planes usually see are a likely reason that an airline like Southwest doesn’t recover with on-time performance as well during the evening as hub-and-spoke carriers.

“In general, they are just using very different strategies for running the airline,” Snyder said.


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