San Diego

NBC 7 Investigates Puts Airlines to the ‘On-Time' Test

As the busiest travel season of the year quickly approaches, don’t book that flight before seeing the results from NBC 7 Investigates “On-Time” test

The sky is the limit when it comes to the number of destinations you can fly to, but getting there on time is not up to the passengers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation identifies a delay as any flight departing or landing 15 minutes late. Using that as a baseline, NBC 7 Investigates crunched the numbers for nearly nine million flights coming and going from U.S. airports since 2016.

"I always fly Southwest. It's my airline of choice," traveler Jacqueline Johnson said.

Johnson and her husband Mordecai fly once or twice a year, the average for most Americans. They say Southwest is their go-to carrier because of the price and free baggage offerings.

"We hadn't had any problems," Mordecai said. "It’s always been on time and ease of use."

U.S. Department of Transportation data shows in the first seven months of 2017, Southwest flights were delayed about 22 percent of the time and more than one in five Southwest flights were over 15 minutes late departing or arriving.

"I've flown on Southwest a few times; that wouldn't surprise me," Alaska Airlines Traveler Wylie Cashman said. 

In an email, a spokesperson for Southwest said, "Southwest takes great pride in offering our customers safe and reliable flights, and we are always striving to operate a schedule that meets the expectations of the over 100 million customers who chose to fly with us every year."

Lindbergh Field is the largest metropolitan airport in the U.S. without a hub. San Diego is a "focus city" for Southwest and Alaska Airlines though meaning both carriers show interest in expanding here.

In the first seven months of 2017 Alaska Airlines flew a fraction of the number of flights Southwest flew, and according to the data, 14 percent of Alaska flights departed late and 18 percent arrived late to their destinations.

The other three top five carriers in San Diego posted these numbers in the first seven months of the year.

  • American Airlines flew half a million flights with 18 percent delayed on departure and 20 percent delayed on arrival.
  • Delta Airlines flew over a half million times with departures delayed 17 percent of the time and arrivals 16 percent.
  • Of the over 300,000 United Airlines flights, 19 percent of departures and arrivals were delayed.

"We're like in the black hole of consumer rights as far as delays are concerned," Flyers Rights.Org President Paul Hudson said.

According to the watchdog group for travelers, passengers are held, hostage by too few choices and no competition in the airline industry.

"It's largely caused by the lack of any reserves of equipment and personnel that the airlines are currently operating," Hudson said.

In an email, American Airline's Senior Corporate Communications Manager Ross Feinstein told NBC7 Investigates, "we expect, as do our customers, that American Airlines and American Eagle will operate flights on time. On occasion, the weather and/or air traffic control challenges can make it difficult, if not impossible to stay on schedule."

A Delta spokesperson said their employees know being on-time is important and they are consistently focused on record-setting performance both in on-time arrivals and with the fewest cancellations in the industry.

According to the data, Virgin Airlines and Jet Blue top the list of carriers with the largest percentage of delayed flights. Of the 80 busiest airports in the country, LAX is the worst for delays, San Diego's Lindbergh field is ranked 36th.

NBC 7 Investigates looked at three popular holiday destinations: San Francisco, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. Of the top three carriers flying from San Diego to San Francisco, Virgin Airlines has the worst on-time record arriving late 39 percent of the time.

"We're two and half hour’s early right now," Virgin Airlines Traveler Ian Hartley said. "It's a day of travel and that's pretty much it. It is what it is."

In an email a spokesperson for Virgin Airlines, in the Alaska Airlines Group, said, "Air Traffic Control events in SEA, LAX, and SFO are up on average over 30 percent from 2016 and the driving factors have been increased congestion at peak times and runway repair and construction at two of Virgin America's major hubs."

Jet Blue did not respond to comment for this story.

On the Phoenix route, Southwest departs and arrives late 21 percent of the time while American Airlines flights are delayed half as much.

The primary carrier to Las Vegas is Southwest and according to the data, every fifth flight is delayed leaving and arriving.

Still, Southwest travelers give the airline points for price and perks.

"We usually like the free checked bags, that one is our big draw for that one," Lindsey Young said.

Savvy travelers anticipate the delay but based on this transportation department data, odds are the dreaded delay will find you.

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