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The Best and Worst On-Time Airlines in the US

We have all experienced a delayed flight. Sometimes it's a pilot strike, others bad weather, and ultimately a combination of factors that no-one could predict: bad luck.

But are some airlines consistently more on-time than others? In this article we dig into the data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics to find out.

Gate and runway times

To understand delays a bit better, we need to know the difference between the following times:

Gate time: the time at which the plate pulls off or arrives to the gate
Runway time: the time at which the plan takes off or lands

The time you see in the flight ticket is always the gate time. Therefore, if you plane taxis for +15 minutes before taking off, be sure that airlines have taken this time into account to set an appropriate arrival time.

Many airlines claim arriving a few minutes “ahead of schedule” right after landing. But this is misleading for passengers: the landing time is not the arrival time. In large airports the taxi time can be significant, turning around the “ahead of schedule” claim.

Marketing and operating airlines

One also needs to differentiate between operating and marketing airlines:

Operating airline: The airline that operates the flight
Marketing airline: The airline group that sells the ticket for the flight

For example, you can buy a ticket with the American Airlines website, but in some cases it might be operated by another airline of its group: Envoy Air, PSA Airlines, etc.

In this article, we show the data for the whole airline group. This approach was preferred since passengers are likely to expect the treatment projected by the airline they are buying from, irrespective of the airline that will finally operate the flight.

Number of flights per airline

number of flights per marketing carrier in 2022

Starting with the number of flights, we can see that the American Airlines Group stands at the top. However, about 50% of these flights were operated by other airlines from the group, not specifically American Airlines. If we consider airlines without their group, we can appreciate the size of Southwest Airlines, with 1.3 million flights a year, almost twice as much than any other airline alone.

Another observation is that there is a large gap between the “big four” airlines and the rest: Alaska Airlines has over 3 times less traffic than United Airlines.

The most on-time airlines

percentage of on-time flights per marketing carrier in 2022

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics defines on-time as being within 15 minutes from the scheduled time. With this definition, Delta appears as the most on-time airline of 2022.

The on-time record of the airlines also shows a clear split between low-cost and full-service airlines. In a previous analysis on airline safety, we concluded that the accident rate of low-cost airlines was even a bit lower than full-service ones. Low-cost does not mean less safety, but it does mean less punctuality. The difference Delta and Allegiant is striking: almost 20% more on-time flights with Delta!

The Covid-19 outbreak arrived to America in early the 2020's, and we can see an improvement in on-time records for that time. This can be explained by the fact that the number of flights was much lower, allowing airlines and airport to operate well below their designed capacity.

percentage of on-time flights per marketing carrier timeline

After Covid-19, most airlines went back to their 2019 on-time record. But there are some exceptions. Allegiant Air and other low-cost airlines such as Frontier and JetBlue are in a clear decline, possibly due to the quick ramp-up of flights once the Covid restrictions were lifted.

Hawaiian Airlines was number one on-time airline between 2019-2021. But in just one year, it's on-time record dropped by almost 25 %. The reason for such decline could be the delay in the delivery of Boeing 787 Dreamliners that Hawaiian was expecting during the third quarter of 2022. With the new planes, Hawaiian planned a larger number of flights that had to be re-adjusted once the delay was known. This led to a on-time percentage of just 60% for the fourth quarter of 2022. We will see how 2023 develops for Hawaiian, but the figures from the initial months are still well below the previous 90% on-time rates.

What are the causes for flight delays?

When a flight is delayed, the contribution from different factors is as follows (2022 data):

Aircraft arriving late: 37.0 %
Airline delay: 34.0%
National aviation system delay: 24.0 %
Weather: 3.6 %
Flight diverted: 1.1 %
Security issue: 0.3 %

Despite the accurate numbers presented by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, all of these categories affect each other, making it hard to define an accurate distinction. For example, an aircraft arriving late can be caused by weather events that affected several flights, which in turn overloaded the airline's work. What was the root cause in this case? It's difficult to judge.

Chronically delayed flights

delay time on chronically delayed flights in 2022

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics collects monthly data on chronically delayed flights. These are flights that arrive 30 min late or more for at least 10 times during a month. Flights that become chronically delayed are tend back on normal schedule after a month or two, since airlines would allocate resources to resolve the issue. However, some flights were observed to be chronically delayed for 4 months or more.

For the top 10 chronically delayed flights that repeat 4 months or more, 9 are from JetBlue and 1 from Frontier. Both of them low-cost airlines. The first in the list, flight B6 342 between Savannah (SAV) and John F. Kennedy (JFK) was arriving 127 min late on average during 2022!

Airlines with most canceled flights

percentage of cancelled flights per marketing carrier timeline

Cancelled flights follow the same trend as the on-time records: low-cost airlines cancel more than full-service ones.

Once again, JetBlue stands at the top, with almost twice more cancellations than Delta. Considering JetBlue’s low on-time record, high number of chronically delayed flights, and high number of cancelled flights, it seems that it might be the least reliable airline in the US, in terms of timing.

A weak customer protection

In the US, the Department of Transportation is quick at erasing any hope of compensation for delayed flights:

“My flight is delayed - am I entitled to money or other compensation from the airline?

No. There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation”

The results is that each airline defines its own compensation policy, and this range from a voucher for food to none.

In the European Union, airlines are required to comply with the EU261 regulation, which states that passengers must be compensated between 250-600 euros, depending on the delay time and trip length. It should however be noted that compensation starts at 2 hours delay. For most, a 1 hour delay is already significant.

The overall conclusion is that, due to the weak regulation (or no regulation whatsoever) airlines can freely determine the on-time record that they would like to have by allocating more or less resources to their flights. In the US, low-cost airlines clearly do this more than full-service ones.

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