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American Airlines moves up in on-time rankings, while Southwest falls behind

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 25, 2022

An American Airlines passenger jet takes off from Miami International Airport on June 3, 2016. American moved ahead of several of its competitors in on-time arrival rankings in 2021.  (Associated Press )
An American Airlines passenger jet takes off from Miami International Airport on June 3, 2016. American moved ahead of several of its competitors in on-time arrival rankings in 2021. (Associated Press )
Kyle Arnold The Dallas Morning News

American Airlines moved ahead of several of its major competitors in on-time arrival rankings in 2021, despite a year of turbulence as the Fort Worth-based carrier and the rest of the aviation industry tried to find smoother skies in the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines fell below its major competitors at American, United and Delta as it failed to build on several years of improving performance, according to 2021 Punctuality League report from global aviation data company OAG.

“Generally, performance improved across all carriers and we can all sit here and say it was because there were fewer flights,” OAG senior analyst John Grant said. “But they still had the challenges of not having enough available people and bringing back their networks from 2020.”

American ranked third among major U.S. carriers in the report, behind perennial top performers Hawaiian Airlines and Delta Air Lines with 85.1% of flights landing on time.

Southwest Airlines ranked six out of the country’s 10 biggest carriers, just behind United and Alaska with 81.2% of flights landing on time.

It was American’s best on-time performance since at least 2012, and far better than recent years, excluding the pandemic year of 2020 when global air traffic fell by nearly two-thirds from the year before.

It was particularly better than 2018 and 2019, when American struggled with a contract dispute with mechanics and then the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.

Improving on-time landings and cutting down on cancellations has been the major focus of incoming CEO Robert Isom, who takes over the job at the end of March for the retiring Doug Parker.

Isom said that operating a more reliable airline will help it become more popular among passengers and cut expenses, leading it to better profitabilty.

“By growing back quickly, we met our commitment to be ready to fly when Americans were ready to return to the skies, and we did it better than anyone else,” Parker and Isom said in a memo to employees on Jan. 10.

“We also welcomed 16,000 new team members in 2021, and we plan to hire 18,000 more this year as we continue to build back to meet the pent-up demand for air travel.”

American also remained the world’s largest airline by total flights in pandemic-dampened 2021, operating 1.8 million globally, more than the 1.5 million at Delta, 1.3 million at United and 1 million at Southwest.

But American’s total flights still dropped by 22% in 2021 compared with 2019, slightly less than its competitors at Delta and United shrank as all major aviation companies tried to balance the demand from leisure customers with the new realities of commercial flying.

Southwest on the other hand, improved its on-time percentage to 81.2% compared with 2019 on a smaller number of flights than before the pandemic.

But it dropped in the rankings as others improved more with the decreased number of flights.

In some ways, 2021 was a year of struggles for both airlines, which dealt with major weather events at their home bases in North Texas, including February’s historic snowstorm and staffing meltdowns during the summer that led to massive cancellation events.

Southwest’s vice president of operational performance and design said the company is proud of how employees “pulled together over the past year to serve our customers.”

“As we scaled operations back up in 2021, our on-time performance was affected by a multitude of factors, including weather challenges across many areas of the country throughout the year, brief technology outages last June, single-runway operations at Love Field, and an environment strained by the ongoing effects of the pandemic,” Ford said in a statement.

Each ran into troubles during the summer and had difficulties at times getting enough flight attendants and pilots to fill aggressive flight schedules.

And they both responded with plans to aggressively hire thousands of new workers, even as the general U.S. business world scrambles to find enough workers.

Despite those events, American’s cancellation rate through October was 2.2%, the best since at least 2017.

Southwest’s cancellation rate was slightly higher at 2.52%, the worst among the four major airlines in the U.S. Delta has the lowest cancellation rate, and United was just behind American.

“They are all trying to bounce back and re-engineer their business, but there are some challenges that can’t be solved in a short period of time,” Grant said.

“Delta is always at the top and Hawaiian is always at the top. It just seems to be part of their DNA to focus on on-time performance.”

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