Passengers again endured thousands of flight cancellations and delays in the U.S. Northeast this past weekas another winter storm grounded planes yet again. But many of those flights won’t be counted as late or canceled in the government’s on-time statistics.
A recent federal report found that passengers are getting only part of the picture, and that the industry’s on-time performance is actually much lower than billed. And a proposed rule that would require carriers to provide a more accurate picture has itself been delayed — and has yet to be adopted more than two years after it was proposed.
On-time statistics capture only 76 percent of domestic flights at American commercial airports, according to a report released in December by the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
These statistics do not include many segments of the industry that have grown in recent years: international flights, flights flown by Spirit Airlines, or many flights operated by regional carriers and other partners. The biggest gap in reporting typically involves smaller planes that are more likely to be delayed or canceled.
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The proposed rule would increase the number of carriers required to report data about delays and cancellations, improving the accuracy of the on-time statistics that the government announces every month.
It is part of a set of passenger protections that began the lengthy federal rule-making process in April 2011, but the announcement of the final proposed rule has been postponed multiple times.
The latest target date for its release, Jan. 24, has come and gone with no action by the Transportation Department, leaving passenger advocates irate.
“I’m totally frustrated by this,” said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a passenger advocacy group. “I’ve written letters, I’ve stood in front of the DOT with a big banner, I’ve gone on TV. Now we’re up to around 1,000 days since the rule was proposed.”
The inspector general’s report analyzed a wide set of flight data, including records from the Federal Aviation Administration, and found that 64 percent of the domestic flight delays at Philadelphia International Airport don’t get counted in the official government statistics; neither do 51 percent of the delays at Detroit Metropolitan Airport or 44 percent of the delays at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.
At those airports, many flights are operated by the regional partners of bigger carriers like American, Delta or US Airways, so those delays are not reported to the Transportation Department. That means the agency’s monthly report — recently noting a 79 percent on-time arrival record for the airline industry from January through November 2013 — is based on faulty statistics.
It also penalizes airlines like Southwest, which reported data for more than 3,000 flights in November, compared with United, which shared data on about 1,000 flights, excluding many flights operated by its regional partners.
The numbers would be different if the government collected more complete data, researchers say.
The Transportation Department declined to discuss the inspector general’s report, or the timing of the long-delayed passenger protections, which have been under review by the Office of Management and Budget since April.
But the department emailed a statement saying: “We are always open to suggestions for improving the usefulness of our on-time performance information and members of the public will have an opportunity to comment on any proposal issued by the department.”
The statement also explained that the Transportation Department did not previously require airlines to report data for all of their partner flights because the larger carriers did not previously rely so heavily on these regional airlines.
But even the main trade association for United States carriers, Airlines for America, now supports the recommendations in the inspector general’s report, to increase the pool of carriers reporting data about cancellations and delays.
“We are not getting a complete picture of operating performance in our system,” said John P. Heimlich, Airlines for America’s vice president and chief economist. “We’re certainly missing a lot of regional operations.”
Perhaps a thornier problem for data collectors is how long passengers, not flights, are delayed, particularly with carriers operating near full capacity and few empty seats to accommodate travelers who get stuck — sometimes for days — because of a missed connection or canceled flight.
“Wouldn’t that be something — if you could see how many passengers were delayed one day, two days or three days?” Leocha said. “I’m sure that would make people’s jaws drop.”