Using Aviation Data to Select an Airline

Let’s face it, flying today isn’t the posh experience that it used to be. With the increased security, and generally poor revenue environment for airlines, service has suffered. And, it’s not just the “frills” that are gone, basic service, like making an on-time departure has slipped as well.

If you’re booking one of those luxury holidays, don’t forget that your experience on the flight out can set the mood for the entire vacation. Choosing and airline with a history of good customer service and a respectable on-time departure performance will take some of the stress out of your trip.

There’s three major, measurable factors that will drive the way you feel about your experience on your flight out to your destination:

  • Whether the Flight Departs on Time
  • The Safe Arrival of Your Baggage
  • The Level of Customer Service Provided by the Carrier

The good news is that U.S. Department of Transportation maintains a repository of all this information, so you’ll be able to research how well each of the available airlines that service your destination perform for all three factors.

On-Time Departures

While there are some situations, like weather, that are out of an airline’s control, an examination of the underlying data shows that some airlines outperform others, both at a high level, as well as on specific flight routes.

Below is an example comparison of two airlines serving the same route…a popular vacation-oriented flight from LaGuardia Airport in Newark, NJ to Miami International:

Comparison of American Airlines and Delta on a Route from Newark to Miami

In the table ‘AA’ is American Airlines and ‘DL’ is Delta Airlines.  We’ve highlighted a notable statistic…the average departure delay for the flight.   You can see here that American’s average delay is 18 minutes, while Delta’s average delay is 7 minutes.   That may not sound like much, but if the traveler is changing planes in Miami to travel on to an international destination that 11 minutes can make the difference between a frantic dash across the airport, and a little time to have some coffee.

Baggage Loss Statistics

Similar to on-time departure, the Department of Transportation also maintains statistics on how well each airline handles your bags.  Specifically, they track the percentage of bags that end up being lost.   This data isn’t available on per-flight basis, but rather, for the airline as a whole.  Nonetheless, the differences between airlines is notable.   They also trend the data, so that it’s easy to identify if a specific airline is improving over time, or getting worse.

Have a look at the chart below, with data from July of 2012:

Number of Mishandled Baggage Reports for U.S. Airlines, July 2012

We’ve highlighted an interesting comparison.   For the month of July, Virgin America had roughly 1 reported baggage incident for every 1,000 passengers that it carried.  United Airlines has roughly 5 per 1000.   That means that if you select United, you’re about five times more likely to have your luggage misplaced than if you select Virgin.   That’s no way to start your holiday!

Customer Service

Of the three measured factors, Customer Service is arguably the most important, as it drives not only your mood on the flight out, but is a terrific indicator of how much assistance you’ll get if something does go wrong.   After all, despite the statistics about ontime departures and baggage handling, EVERY airline has late flights and lost bags.   However, there’s a huge difference in how each of those airlines responds when an issue arises.

Airlines that consistently top the charts for customer service are the ones that are most likely to solve any issues quickly and get the situation resolved.   While there are many ways to measure the level of customer service provided, the DOT offers one that’s a good high-level indicator.   Every month, they publish a chart that shows the number of complaints filed with their office, sorted by complaints per 100,000 boarded customers.

The chart is sometimes very enlightening, as you can see from the example below:

Filed Complaints Per 100,000 Passengers Boarded, U.S. Airlines, July 2012

To make the comparison fair, we selected two airlines of comparable size, each boarding more than 8 million passengers in the month of July.   The comparison here is amazingly stark.  Delta, while being in the middle of the pack for ALL airlines, is doing reasonably well when compared to to major airlines that carry at least 4 million passengers a month ( #2 by that measure ).   They are averaging less than 1 complaint filed with the DOT for every 100,000 passengers boarded.  United, on the other hand, has 11 times that number of complaints being lodged.  Which airline do you suppose is more likely to resolve an issue?


When shopping for flights, consumers would be wise to compare more than just price.  Detailed information and statistics that can predict the quality of their flight is publicly available and straightforward in it’s nature.



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