In a letter to MileagePlus members just days after he was hired as United’s CEO last September, Oscar Munoz pledged to make improved timeliness one of his immediate priorities at the oft-criticized carrier.

Nearly a year later, signs are emerging that Munoz and the United team have succeeded on that front.

During the first two months of Munoz’s tenure, United ranked seventh and sixth, respectively, in on-time percentage out of the 11 mainline U.S. airlines tracked by the global flight-data services company FlightStats. Last November, United ranked seventh again, but that time out of 10 airlines because U.S. Airways had merged with American. (Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin America are the other carriers.)

But in the ensuing months, United’s timeliness, defined by the FAA as the percentage of flights that arrive within 15 minutes of schedule, went up in comparison to its rival carriers.

Oscar Munoz
Oscar Munoz

From December through March, United had the fifth-best on-time percentage of the carriers charted by FlightStats. In April, United moved into the fourth spot. And from May through July, United came in third on the list, behind only Alaska and Delta.

Perhaps just as significant, at least from United’s perspective, is that it has turned the tables on Big Three rival American, which had consistently produced better on-time results prior to 2016.

In January, United was on time 82.6% of the time, according to FlightStats, compared with American’s on-time performance of 80.9%. Since then, United has outperformed American on timeliness in each month, except for March. 

To be sure, United’s improvement in timeliness didn’t begin with Munoz’s tenure. The carrier’s overall 2015 on-time performance was the seventh-best among 12 carriers (this time including Hawaiian) charted by FlightStats, up from 10th out of 11 the previous year. But it has risen quickly since last September.

During United’s earnings call last January, COO Greg Hart laid out one way in which the carrier was tackling tardiness problems.

“One change we implemented earlier this month was an increase in the amount of out-and-back flying we do,” Hart said.

He went on to explain that in 2015, 35% of United’s flights followed an out-and-back pattern, meaning that the planes went from a hub to a second destination, then returned to the original point of departure. In January, United doubled that number to 70%.

Out-and-back flying protects a flight network from the cascading effects of bad weather in one location said Seth Kaplan, managing editor of the newsletter Airline Weekly. In that respect, it differs from point-to-point flying, in which a plane visits several locations in a day.

For example, if a plane goes from Chicago to Denver and then on to Phoenix and Los Angeles, more markets and flights would potentially be impacted by a Chicago snowstorm than if the plane went only to Denver and back.

Brett Snyder, who runs the aviation blog Cranky Flier, said airlines that want to bring on-time stats up quickly also sometimes pad their schedules by increasing “block times,” the average time an airline expects routes to take, gate to gate.

Longer block times on the same route can improve on-time stats while a carrier does the harder work of making operations more efficient, he said. Once better efficiency is achieved, a carrier can then lower block times, which are often used as a metric for paying crews, as a way to reduce overhead.

United declined repeated requests for comments about this report.

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