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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 12/ 8/2010

Southwest's on-time performance slips

By Bloomberg News and Staff Reports

Southwest Airlines, the U.S. industry leader in on-time arrivals since record-keeping began in 1987, finds itself in an unprecedented spot this year: eighth place.

Second a year ago, Southwest is slipping as it expands at congested airports such as New York's LaGuardia while US Airways, Alaska Air and other rivals improve their performance, according to federal data released Tuesday for the 12 months ended in October.

The 2010 slide marks a blow for the carrier with the best cumulative rating since the U.S. started tracking results 23 years ago. With the drop, Southwest loses the "corporate prestige" from being at or near the top of its peers, said Steve Martin, senior vice president at InterVistas Consulting in Bethesda.

"They would like to be able to deliver good news to their passengers that 'the rest of the industry is still on the rocks, but we're getting you there on time,'" Martin said. "There's a certain amount of bragging rights that are involved."

Southwest, which painted a plane in 1997 in partial tribute to its timeliness, finished among the top four airlines for the seven consecutive years before its current decline. The Dallas- based carrier is among eight in the U.S. for which the Transportation Department has maintained records since 1987.

Southwest, the biggest U.S. discount carrier, was alone among major airlines in posting a drop in on-time performance in the 12 months ended in October, falling to 81 percent from 82.1 percent on a year-over-year basis. Its all-time rate is 81.9 percent.

"It is a priority for us to make improvements," said Chris Mainz, a Southwest spokesman. "We have actually added more complexity to our network, along with record loads, and have not seen a dramatic decrease in performance."

Southwest agreed earlier this fall buy AirTran in a $1.4 billion deal that would bring the nation's largest low-cost carrier to Reagan National Airport for the first time and extend its already large presence at BWI. The merger would position Southwest to become the Washington area's dominant airline, with a combined 31.5 percent of the region's air travel and opportunities to expand. At BWI, AirTran and Southwest handled a combined 14.3 million passengers last year, airport officials said. Southwest is already Washington's largest domestic carrier, with more than 10.9 million passengers at BWI and Dulles.

While Southwest has kept on-time arrivals at more than 80 percent for nine consecutive years, rivals' gains have helped put the industry on course for its most punctual year since 2003. Airlines cut flights during the recession, helping ease airport congestion.
United Continental, Delta Air Lines, AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and AirTran, which Southwest is acquiring, are among carriers that joined US Airways and Alaska in improving on-time arrival rates in the 12 months ended in October.

Southwest's on-time performance has been challenged by a record number of seats filled on its planes, Mainz said. That figure hovered in a range of 65 percent to 70 percent from 2000 through 2005, and expanded to 79.1 percent through October of this year.

Jets that once sat idle at airport gates for only 20 minutes between flights helped Southwest make efficiency gains on competitors in years past. That so-called turn time has swelled to 30 minutes, Mainz said.

"When you do carry more people you are going to require more time to process those flights," said Jay Sorensen, president of consultant Ideaworks in Shorewood, Wisconsin.. "As Southwest ages, it will pick up more and more of the characteristics of an older airline. It's really unavoidable."

By Bloomberg News and Staff Reports  | December 8, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Airlines, Aviation  
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