Lifestyle

The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines of 2018

The Wall Street Journal’s annual ranking of eight major U.S. airlines tracks flight delays, mishandled baggage and formal complaints, so you don’t have to. WSJ’s Scott McCartney hands out the awards. Photo: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal.

Delta Air Lines is flying in one direction, American Airlines in the other. While Delta’s operation was best among major airlines, American remains stuck near the bottom when measuring its reliability against rival airlines.

How the Airlines Stack Up

The overall performances of the largest U.S. airlines on the Middle Seat scorecard, from 2016 to 2018.

The largest carrier ended up next-to-last in the annual Middle Seat scorecard ranking of eight major U.S. airlines. Only Frontier, dragged down by a contract dispute with pilots, performed worse overall in 2018.

This marked the 10th time in 11 years that American end up last or next-to-last in the scorecard, which ranks airlines on seven operational measures important to travelers. American’s results for 2018 were worse than 2017 in five of the seven categories.

The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines of 2018
Illustration: Rob Wilson

Delta has been in the top three every year since 2010, when it finished last. Over the past eight years, Delta has proved that a big airline can operate punctually.

Delta canceled less than 1% of its flights in 2018. American’s cancellation rate was nearly three times as high. Delta’s rate of lost or delayed baggage was half as bad as American’s. About 7% of Delta flights were late by 45 minutes or more. At Frontier, 15% of all flights suffered what are considered extreme delays.

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Alaska placed second overall, trailing Delta mostly because of higher rates of mishandled baggage and involuntary bumping of passengers.

Scorecard data come from the Transportation Department and from masFlight, the flight-data analytics unit of Global Eagle , which supplies services to airlines, cruise ships and others. (We don’t include Hawaiian Airlines because it doesn’t face the same mainland weather challenges.)

Frontier responded to questions about its last-place 2018 ranking with a statement saying the “operational disruption” resulted from contract negotiations with its pilots union. Negotiations took more than two years. Pilots ratified a new five-year contract last week. “While the disruption went on for longer than we had expected, we are pleased to be starting 2019 with a ratified collective bargaining agreement with our pilots,” company spokesman Jonathan Freed says.

Spirit, a low-cost carrier known for its low fares and high fees, showed significant improvement after placing next-to-last the previous three years. Spirit ranked fourth in 2018. It had the lowest rate of mishandled bags and nearly matched Delta’s rate of canceled flights.

2018 Airline Scorecard

Sort through the rankings of major carriers in key operational areas, best to worst

*JetBlue and United both ranked fifth in overall ranking

Sources: On-time, canceled flights and extreme delays data for full year 2018 from Global Eagle’s masFlight Analytics Platform; includes regional affiliate flights and international; Two-hour tarmac delays, mishandled baggage and consumer complaints from Transportation Department, based on 12 months ended in Oct.; DOT involuntary bumping based on 12 months ended September

Overall, last year was a challenging one for airlines and their passengers. This year may be even more turbulent if the government shutdown drags on and sporadic long security lines turn into major checkpoint meltdowns. In 2018, airlines didn’t run into big hurricanes like 2017, but last year persistent bad weather caused lots of delays at hub airports. United says nearly 7% of its flights during the year were affected by thunderstorms. Atlanta, Delta’s largest hub, had more than 70 inches of rain in 2018, the second-wettest year on record, according to the National Weather Service.

Delta repeated as champion in the Middle Seat scorecard rankings.
Delta repeated as champion in the Middle Seat scorecard rankings. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press

The eight major carriers included in the scorecard posted an on-time arrivals rate of 78.9%, down slightly from 79.6% in 2017, according to masFlight. The airlines canceled about 5,000 more flights in 2018 than in 2017.

The good news: Fewer bags were mishandled, fewer passengers were bumped from flights and fewer complaints were filed with the DOT.

United ended up in the middle of the pack, in a tie with JetBlue for fifth place. The carrier says its “controllable” cancellation rate—cancellations from airline problems, not weather—was the best in its history. But weather weighed heavily on operations. Storms were more powerful and lasted longer, says Jim DeYoung, vice president of network operations.

“We’re very happy with our performance in 2018,” he says.

Delta says it had 143 days without a single cancellation among its mainline and regional flights, up from 90 no-cancellation days in 2017. In 2018, the airline saw only 55 flights canceled because of maintenance problems. In 2010, it had more than 5,000 maintenance cancellations, says Gil West, Delta’s chief operating officer.

Spirit, a low-cost airline known for cheap fares and high fees, significantly improved its operations last year, moving up from seventh place to fourth place among major carriers. Spirit was best in baggage handling and had almost the same rate of canceled flights as No. 1 Delta. But it still is near the bottom in complaints.
Spirit, a low-cost airline known for cheap fares and high fees, significantly improved its operations last year, moving up from seventh place to fourth place among major carriers. Spirit was best in baggage handling and had almost the same rate of canceled flights as No. 1 Delta. But it still is near the bottom in complaints. Photo: Saul Martinez/Bloomberg News

But the key to reliability last year, he says, was how each airline performed during bad weather. “Even though our weather’s gotten worse, our gap to the other carriers has increased quite a bit,” Mr. West says.

One example: Delta spent more than $20 million last year to buy a dozen additional deicing trucks in Atlanta and build more deicing pads where airplanes get sprayed with chemicals that are collected in drains. That reduced cancellations and delays, Mr. West says.

“In one day, we’ll save 100 cancellations during a deicing event in Atlanta,” Mr. West says.

American and United say their hubs also got hit hard by bad weather. Dallas-Fort Worth, American’s largest hub, had the second-wettest year on record, with record rainfall in February, September and October, according to the weather service. The summer also was tough for American. In June, a lengthy computer outage at a regional subsidiary piled up delays in Charlotte. In addition, engine fan blade inspections required across the industry after a fatal accident on Southwest chewed up a lot of time for mechanics, delaying some nonessential summer prep work.

As a result, American says cancellations and delays from mechanical issues increased. But performance improved in the fall and during winter holiday periods, says Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president for customer experience. “It’s not our plan to remain in last place” among the big three U.S. carriers, she says.

American finished next-to-last in the 2018 airline rankings. It was the 10th time in the 11-year history of the rankings that American placed in the bottom two.
American finished next-to-last in the 2018 airline rankings. It was the 10th time in the 11-year history of the rankings that American placed in the bottom two. Photo: Christian Van Grinsven/SOPA Images/Zuma Press

American says it is undertaking a number of initiatives to improve. The carrier is standardizing procedures at airports to speed up unloading and reloading planes. It’s also standardizing planes so that each 777-200, for example, has the same number of seats and can be used interchangeably when one breaks down.

“We’re starting to see some really good traction with some of the initiatives that we’ve launched,” says David Seymour, American’s senior vice president for integrated operations.

American says it is still working through some aspects of integration with US Airways. Delta merged with Northwest and United merged with Continental several years before American and US Airways combined, and American executives argue that’s a big reason why operational improvement lags behind rival airlines.

Yet Delta and United showed improvement within four years of closing their respective mergers. American’s merger closed five years ago.

MORE FROM THE MIDDLE SEAT

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

Appeared in the January 17, 2019, print edition.

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