Is this the worst airline for delays and cancellations?
It's time to name names — and I'll tell you how to avoid an underperforming air carrier this summer
Airline cancellations and delays happen. They're happening more this summer. But where do they happen the most?
Specifically, which airline has the worst track record for cancellations and delays? Which one is doing the worst on the customer service side? In short, which airline should you avoid?
I'm not afraid to name names — and I will in a minute.
But first, here's what you need to know. It's not your imagination; airline cancellations and delays are getting worse. There are several underperforming airlines out there depending on which metric you use. And don't worry, you have options for avoiding the chaos.
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Yes, airline cancellations and delays are on the rise
Let's start with a look at the big picture. In May and June, we saw airline delays and cancellations rise in the United States. We know why this is happening. Airlines failed to predict record-high demand and cut their staffs too aggressively during the pandemic, despite pocketing billions of dollars in federal aid.
I spent most of last week writing the ultimate guide to flight cancellations and delays. I came away with a sense of pessimism. We don't have a lot of rights as consumers. Airlines can cancel their flights without consequence. Sometimes, they can even talk you into taking a flight credit instead of a full refund. They keep your money, and they may not even have to fly you anywhere.
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So which airline is the worst?
There are two ways of measuring airline badness. We could have a look at the airlines with the most delays and cancellations. Or we could just ask you what you think.
Here's how airlines stack up for cancellations in May and June. The blue bar is flights operated; the yellow part is flights canceled.
American Airlines is the worst of the major carriers, canceling 3.4 percent of its flights. That's 0.4 percent above average.
But when it comes to delays, there's one clear winner — I mean, loser.
Southwest Airlines leads the flock in delays, with 26.9 percent of its flights affected. However, the average Southwest delay is just 32 minutes. That compares to an average delay of almost an hour for the other major airlines.
But enough with the data. I wanted to know what you thought. Based on your own experiences flying this summer and the word on the street (yes, I know, not highly scientific). So I put it to a vote in our subscriber-only Friday Forum.
And here's how you voted:
Talk about the wisdom of the crowd! Without even seeing the cancellation and delay data from the last two months, you correctly identified American as the most likely to cancel a flight. You also saw past Southwest's more frequent, but shorter delays, and again identified American as the overall worst carrier.
The worst may be ahead
There's good news and bad news for Fourth of July air travelers. Modeling done by our friends at Aerology suggests we're at a lull in capacity utilization (which measures how efficiently an airline fills seats on its planes) right now. In other words, this weekend’s disruptions are nothing compared to what lies ahead.
As you can see, Aerology predicts the number will rise through the middle of next month before tapering off for the fall. The worst could still be ahead.
What to do about the worst airlines for cancellations and delays
You mean, besides avoiding American Airlines?
Some of you won't be able to do that. You're in a hub city, captive to American. Or you're flying overseas to a destination only served by American. Or maybe you've already made your plans and canceling would be impractical.
But you have options.
Look for waivers from your airline
For example, Delta is offering free travel changes through July 4. The airline is allowing passengers to rebook their trip before or after "potentially challenging" weekend travel days – with no fare difference or change fees, as long as you travel between the same origin and destination. If the situation worsens — and it probably will — expect to see more offers like that. Take advantage of them and rebook your way clear of the madness.
If you think your flight is cancellation-prone, you can always call your airline or travel advisor and ask if you can rebook. If the agent agrees to bend a rule, get it in writing. Airlines know they're in trouble, and they are deeply embarrassed by this summer's cancellations. They are in a negotiating mood now. Seriously.
Take the flight credit and delay
Instead of jumping into the fray, you could just cancel your ticket and wait until the fall to fly. I know, it's not a perfect fix. I mean, your flight might still operate normally, but if you want to avoid the stress of an upcoming flight, this might be your ticket.
This shouldn't be happening
So what does American Airlines have to say for itself? It blames the cancellations and delays on pilot shortages and air traffic control problems.
But who cares? You just want to get to your destination, and an excuse won't get you there.
This shouldn't be happening. Actually, it should be illegal.
If an airline knows it can't operate a flight, it shouldn't be allowed to schedule it. The mass cancellations and delays of this summer wouldn't be happening without thoughtful and diligent regulation. Maybe we need better consumer protections, like Europe’s EC 261.
If the government held airlines accountable for their schedules, maybe we wouldn’t be having these problems.
How will the summer airline chaos change the way you travel?
Are you planning to change the way you travel? Or the way you vote in November's midterm elections? The comments are open.
Many thanks to reader Diane Scholfield for suggesting that I do a column that names names. If you have a story idea, please email me at email@example.com.
About the art
Aren Elliott imagined what passengers would do with the worst airline ever if they could. Flush it down the toilet, perhaps? The visual inspired this week's digital art.
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