US Travel Disruption: Lucky Escape for Some, but Not United Airlines and JetBlue

The last few weeks have created a perfect summer storm for the US majors as a combination of severe weather, ATC resources and even a small fire in an en-route control centre created lengthy queues for both aircraft on the tarmac and travellers in the terminal. So, did anyone outshine anyone else? Was one carrier better than the rest? Were some airports better than others? We’ve crunched the data and as always there are stories to be told!

The Airline Winners and Losers

Our analysis is based on flight data for the last four weeks - weeks commencing: 5 June, 12 June, 19 June, and 26 June - allowing us to look at patterns, and importantly include all the data to the end of the week (rather than just cut the data to a convenient point for a press story). We have focused on the major US carriers and included domestic and international services at each of their top five operations so that we can highlight any differences and trends. 

June’s Flight Cancellation Rates at the US Majors

The table below shows the cancellation rates at the major US airlines during the four week period. The table emphasizes the difference just a few days made in the week of 26 June with a 13% cancellation rate of all flights for United Airlines,  whilst JetBlue experienced an 8% cancellation rate – both suffering from the catalogue of events in the week of the 26 June. 

However, for Alaska Airlines the whole month of June was impressively consistent with less than 1% of all flights cancelled; indeed, the airline only cancelled 75 flights in the month so if you were a passenger caught in one of their two average cancellations a day then you were extremely unlucky. Similarly, Southwest, who operated some 63,500 flights in June performed well, which given the operational challenges they faced at the turn of the year must have been welcome news for their shareholders. Now, importantly both of those airlines perhaps have a more West and Central USA operation than the other carriers, and a deeper dig into the data highlights just how it really is a matter of location, location, location.

But first, what did happen during June to frazzle the minds of both airline management teams and travellers alike? Well, a series of bad storms swept through the East Coast with a particular focus on the New York area, flow controls were imposed by ATC management who admitted that they remain short-staffed and that some of the “on the job” learning that helps when such things happen has yet to be learnt….simply put - too many people had not worked such conditions before. Then to add to the problems Canadian ATC are also under resourced and so alternate routing for west bound traffic via their air space was not permitted. It was the perfect shower. What  made it the perfect storm was the subsequent crews in the wrong cities, staff out of hours and aircraft misplaced  (in the flying to where next sense, rather than completely lost)!

United Newark Misery Ripples Out

It’s easy to forget the knock-on effect of a major operational issue at one airport has on the rest of an airline's network until you see how it impacted United Airlines. Cancellation rates at Newark Airport were already creeping up during the week of 18 June but that week’s 8.5% rate tripled a week later when the airline cancelled some 1400 flights (26% of all flights). Unfortunately, that then impacted the rest of the network and operations at other bases; in a normal week United Airlines operate some 265 flights (or over 12% of their domestic services) to those other hub cities. The scale of disruption for United Airlines is best summarised by noting that in week commencing 5 June the airline cancelled some 257 flights, a rate of less than 1%, in the last week of June the cancellation rate had increased by nearly fifteen times that amount to 13.5%. 


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JetBlue Gets a Double Whammy

At most times of the year operating from two of New York’s largest airports with a significant share at both would be an enviable position; but when it goes wrong it quickly becomes a double whammy!

JetBlue may benefit from bases at both La Guardia and JFK but that didn’t help them last week when the weather closed in. The airports saw a dramatic escalation in cancellation rates as the operating conditions deteriorated. Interestingly though, the impact on their other major bases was less pronounced than that experienced by United Airlines, perhaps they were able to isolate parts of their network more effectively, or equally, could just have struck a bit more lucky.

Location: West Coast Bases Helped

Finally, geography can be an advantage, especially when all your major bases are located on the West Coast - as is the case for Alaska Airlines. Consistently low cancellation rates at all the airline’s bases may have left them wondering what all the fuss was about last week - but be careful, events can happen anywhere! In the last week of June, Alaska Airlines only cancelled two flights at Anchorage, Los Angeles and Portland whilst Seattle, their worst offending airport, saw seven flights cancelled.

Key Takeaways

Every event - a weather-related issue, industrial disruption, technical air space closure, or any one of a number of operational factors - provides an opportunity for learning, and there will have been some learnings from the last few days for sure. Clearly no airline can prepare for what happened, there are clear shortages of resources in the ATC which have been recognized for some time and the constant issue of crews in the wrong locations remains an unsolved factor for any airline. United Airlines were perhaps ahead of many by issuing digitized refreshment vouchers to disrupted passengers, a welcome innovation that others will follow.

For those airline CEOs and management teams that had to work their ways through the last week of June it was a “why us” moment, while for those that avoided the events it was a lucky escape and essential to recognise that next time it could be them caught in the disruption. However, perhaps the most interesting learning is how would all of this have played out if delay compensation was in place across US airlines? How expensive would the last week have been? And given how much of a factor ATC resources were in the issue, could the airlines seek compensation from the FAA? Interesting.

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