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Originally published December 27, 2013 at 12:42 PM | Page modified December 27, 2013 at 12:52 PM

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Southwest Airlines has an unusual problem: delays

Longtime consumer favorite is having a bad year for on-time performance.


Chicago Tribune

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A major airline in Chicago 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 Chicago passengers this holiday season — and this year — than any other airline. 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 is 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 2 of 3 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 U.S. through the first 10 months of the year. That’s down significantly from its 77 percent on-time rate at Midway 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.

“It’s possible that air traffic congestion on key routes into and out of Midway may contribute to the local delays there,” Harteveldt said.

Because Southwest is not strictly a hub-and-spoke airline, and doesn’t fly as many back-and-forth flights as major network carriers do, its spare aircraft are less often in places where they’re needed, which can lead to delays, Kaplan said.

Meanwhile, airline competitors have slowly improved their on-time rates, raising the bar on performance.

But the reason for the recent terrible on-time rates — namely August, September and October — has been “a combination of unexpected summer weather and changes made to our schedule,” said Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish.

“We are aware of the pain points in our network, and we continue to work on schedule adjustments that will improve our future performance,” he said.

In an attempt to improve its on-time rates, Southwest last week changed its schedule, extending for some routes the total time it allots for such tasks as flying, taxiing, loading and unloading passengers, and preparing the aircraft for the next flight.

But delays on Southwest could continue in the near term.

“Adjustments take several months to implement, due to the complexity of our schedule,” Parrish said. “But we do expect to see improvement by early next year.”

Southwest’s performance problems are a far cry from the mid-1990s, when for five years running it was tops in on-time performance, baggage handling and low complaint rates. It bestowed on itself the “Triple Crown” award for excelling on those measures that are important to consumers.

Fast-forward 20 years, and the picture is quite different. Nationally, Southwest dominates the industry in chronically late flights. In October, it operated 37 of 41 flights the DOT flagged as being late 70 percent of the time or more.

In September, Southwest Flight 3679 from Midway to St. Louis was late 82 percent of the time by an average of 54 minutes. The same flight number from Cleveland back to Chicago was late 68 percent of the time, according to DOT figures.

“Kaplan said the good news is, the delays are not a result of the typical reasons, such as work slowdowns by unhappy union workers or merged airlines combining reservation systems, which often leads to glitches and delays.

“My guess is that this will probably take care of itself, because there’s not the obvious things that have caused operational issues at other airlines,” he said.

And consumers don’t seem to be too mad. During September and October, when Southwest had the worst on-time rates, its rate of complaints filed by consumers was lowest and second-lowest in the industry, respectively.



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